Chatroulette as a Panacea for Loneliness During the Pandemic?

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Last night I logged onto a site I’ve only use once in the past, many years ago…Chatroulette. Why? I miss being able to walk up to and talk to random strangers, and thought that it might be fun to give it a try.

Well, fun indeed it was! Despite choosing the ‘Random’ channel which bills itself as “Nudity = ban” and “A fun place to discuss almost any topic. Keep it clean”(vs Unmoderated which says Use at your own risk), of course, I had to skip past many, many video feeds zoomed in on boxer shorts with a strategically placed hand nearby at the ready (don’t let your kids use this!) — but in between those, I struck gold!

At first I was pretty shy so I covered my camera with a plastic bag. Not surprisingly, most people skipped past me.

Then I noticed people were being creative, so I decided to do the same. I tilted the camera upwards away from my face and made my fingers into little puppets. I made them into butterflies and so on. Some people seemed to appreciate this, and some mirrored what I was doing, but most skipped over me.

Then I noticed a guy had his dog there and was waving hi with his dog’s paw. I thought that was kind of cute, so I focused the camera on my dog, and a lot of people who I matched with cooed “awww” and such. Most skipped over though.

This whole time, I was saying stuff but not getting responses. Finally, I matched with a guy who was playing a great video feed of people dancing. When he turned the feed off, I saw him sitting there with a full headset and mic there — in what seemed to be an audio studio. When he put the feed back on, I felt comfortable to show myself on camera and started dancing, and when he turned it the feed off again I tried talking to him — but he pointed to his headphones and made me realize that he couldn’t hear me. I refreshed my screen, and the next person I spoke with was indeed able to hear me. I realized that no one had been able to hear me this whole time.

This time, I decided to try matching with people with my camera on. I skipped past the many teens on the platform (I think the platform should probably be 18+!), the boxer shorts, and the people wearing masks or otherwise looking creepy. In between these, I found some cool folks and had some very fun experiences!

I chatted with a few people from Colombia, Spain, etc and got to practice my Spanish with them. Then I chatted with some guys who lived in Santiago, where I used to live! I reminisced with them about my favourite neighbourhoods there. When they asked for my Instagram handle, I decided to skip to the next person.

I got matched with a guy who lives nearby in Montreal and shares my passion for investing. We talked for a while about what stocks were our favourites, about what we were considering investing in next, and more. It was a pretty awesome 45-minute long chat, and we both wondered out loud if now that we can’t meet people at bars, if meeting people through websites like Chatroulette was the new way to meet people. It’s certainly a lot faster to see if you connect with someone than texting back and forth before meeting, a la dating apps. We exchanged contact info at the end of our conversation — I gave a fake email address — and we have already sent a couple investing-related articles to each other.

Next I got matched with some folks in Morocco, France, and England and got to hear what the pandemic precaution rules were there. It was interesting to hear the different approaches that governments were taking.

Then I started matching with some performers! One guy started rapping for me, and I started dancing. Another had a guitar and was rocking out. One guy had a light show going on in the background. My favourite was a pianist wearing sunglasses, who offered to take requests. I requested Lady Gaga, and he looked it up and played me Paparrazi! At first I couldn’t tell if he was actually playing or if it was just sound coming from his computer, but when he lifted his fingers, the music stopped. He offered me the option of another song, but I let that Paparrazi serenade be my closing video chat of the night.

Reflecting back on the two or so hours I spent on Chatroulette, I realized that it was the most fun I’ve had in a while. That might make my life sound boring, but I swear it’s not…I’ve been up to lots of fun things — it’s just that Chatroulette was the closest I’ve come during the pandemic to experiences like parties (where you can enter into completely random and novel conversations on any topic) and Burning Man type events (where people bring along ‘offerings’, whether it’s art, a small gift, or an experience to entertain you with). I wondered if it might be a fun idea to try the Chatroulette for Conferences with some groups of friends and communities that I am a part of. For example, a 2-hour event for friends who are into Burning Man, where we each prepare a virtual experience ‘gift’ for each other (e.g. a magic trick? Poem writing? Songs on request on piano? A dance? Etc) and then get matched one-on-one and get to exchange our ‘gifts’ for as long or as short as either of us likes before we click the ‘Next’ button and get matched with someone else (Sidenote: something this, if it’s made kid-safe, would be a great and safe substitute for trick or treating!). Or even a 2-hour event with friends who haven’t caught up in a while, or for meeting new people — it would provide something other than the standard of Zoom ‘all one conversation’ setup. I went to a virtual TechTO event recently that had a function like this — it used the Venue.Live software to randomly match you with another attendee for up to 3 minutes, and you could click next to go to the next person if your conversation ended early. It was fantastic! That might be a safer alternative to Chatroulette, especially if you have a group you want to run an event with. I’ve also been intrigued by platforms like Remo, but those seem better suited for more of a ‘virtual conference room table’ setup where you can join and leave other tables with groups at them, whereas Chatroulette and Venue.Live seem to do a good job at matching you one-on-one for cool convos. After Chatroulette, I also tried Omegle and the Halo app, but Chatroulette still seemed the best I’ve seen so far.

Chatroulette is currently not the safest or cleanest software (ahem, boxer shorts fellas!), and there’s certainly some risks that come with using any random matching video software (e.g. screenshots, and potentially IP tracing? Someone mentioned that but not sure how big a risk there is). In conclusion, I think there’s more room for the creation of safe one-on-one virtual video matching software and experiences, either via pre-established groups (e.g. an entrepreneurship meetup, an interest group, etc), based on topics of common interest, or random matching. It’s an exciting virtual world out there, and I will be curious to see what humanity comes up with during what might otherwise be a bit of a long winter. Meeting random folks online by video is not a substitute for having friends and relationships you are connected with, but it can be a fun and COVID-safe alternative to going to a bar, party or networking event — that can allow you to ‘meet’ people from all over the world, and maybe learn a few things along the way.

Written by

Entrepreneur (CEO @MakerKids). Keynote Speaker. Career Coach. Marketer. Author (published @Forbes, soon @DundurnPress). @SingularityU alum. Musical theatre fan.

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