Chatroulette, Julia Child, and the Virtues of Virtual Friendship

A Hispanic teenager listening to music through headphones, a masturbating man, 3 young caucasian women (probably American), two young middle eastern men dressed in army fatigues and a child with a kafiah covering his face shouting something in Arabic and smiling, another masturbating man, 3 japanese young women.

This was what I saw in ten minutes of Chatroulette, an intriguing web site that anyone with a webcam can try. I wanted to try it and blog about it after reading an interesting article in the New Yorker on its teenage Russian founder. You turn on your webcam and are randomly paired with someone else on the site with their webcam on, to whom you can chat vocally or by typing. Either party can push a button that spins the wheel again at any time to be connected with a new partner, and there is no penalty for doing so.

Perhaps 31-year-old law professors are not the favored species in this realm, but I was “nexted” almost immediately in each of the cases except the middle eastern men at whom I started laughing and they laughed back as well. At some point, though, I felt uncomfortable enough myself that I ended the interaction.

Chatroulette is only the newest and strangest instantiation of a phenomenon I’ve been thinking about – virtual friendship. Can one be friends with someone that one has never met, and what kinds of benefits do this form of friendship offer over or to compliment non-virtual friendship? In recently watching Julie and Julia, I was struck by a scene where Julia meets up with the woman, Avis, she has been writing throughout the film.  We discover that the two women have never actually met in person despite being extremely close; they have just been pen pals for years.

The disadvantages of virtual friendship are pretty straightforward, but what might the advantages be? Total honesty if it retains an air of anonymity or removal from one’s social circle? The ability to compose oneself (like a piece of music), that is present a very specific slice of oneself? Many people I’ve talked to of a certain age (usually under 35, those who have had socializing technologies for some period of their youth) have had a virtual friend or two at some point.  These relationships, however, do not seem very long-lived, certainly not like the decade long correspondence of Avid and Julia. Is that just because our social circles are thicker or there is more competing stimuli than in earlier periods?

To add a legal angle on chatroulette, after seeing Robin Wilson present her paper on Sex Play In Virtual Worlds at a conference this summer, I wondered whether the masturbating men on the site might be subject to criminal liability in some jurisdictions if some of their viewers turned out to be children.  Robin (she’ll correct me if I have this wrong) was of the view that on Second Life or other virtual environments that don’t even involve actual images of actual people, under existing doctrine in some states adults can be criminally liable for sexually suggestive remarks and virtual activities.  Under existing doctrine this is true even if those minors represent themselves as adults, the perpetrator has a good faith belief they are adults, and even if the service has an 18+ policy (even if enforced by something like requiring a credit card).  If that’s right, the comparably less virtual and less regulated domain of chatroulette would seem to be full of potential criminal liability.  I am neither a criminal law nor a cyberlaw scholar so I will be curious what those with more expertise think….

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5 Responses

  1. “Friendship” isn’t really the right category to describe the interactions on ChatRoulette; it’s Internet-mediated socializing without the mutual affection or projection through time of friendship. It’s a lot closer to hanging out at a crowded bar and having random short conversations with other people there than it is to meeting up with a friend for coffee.

  2. Glenn Cohen says:

    Thanks James. I don’t disagree. I was thinking of chatroulette more as a spring board for how one might meet someone with whom a virtual friendship starts rather than as the virtual friendship itself.
    Given your writings on virtual worlds and on privacy, I would love to hear your thoughts on virtual friendship and on the crim law stuff I flagged at the end relating to chatroulette.

  3. Reading your first sentence made me think of my old Manhattan commute on the E–all of those players were usually present in my subway car! Perhaps there’s a metaphor lurking in there about how the NYC subway during rush hour is a live ChatRoulette?

  4. Kash Hill says:

    When I talked to cyberlawyer Eric Goldman about the child pornography issue, he was of the opinion that the site could run into trouble:

    Here’s the relevant portion:

    “It seems like any minor showing his/her private parts via Chat Roulette is producing child porn, and anyone who randomly stumbles across this minor is receiving child porn,” wrote Goldman in an email.

    Additionally, there are a number of laws on the books — “of dubious constitutionality,” says Goldman – banning the display of pornographic materials to minors over the Internet.

    ChatRoulette would not be protected by Section 230 — the Communications Decency Act, which usually indemnifies hosting companies from the actions of their users — because the Act protects websites from liability for civil charges and state criminal charges, but does not protect against federal criminal prosecutions. Goldman recommends that the site segregate users into “kids only” and “porn” categories to protect itself.”

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