When people on Chatroulette see Thomas Park, a Kansas State University hipster who sports black-framed glasses under a ratty mesh hat, they often have the same response: Next!
That's because he's a dude. So are most Chatroulette users. What lots of those dudes want to see on the Web site, which pairs random strangers through their Webcams, is girls. Ideally girls willing to shed clothes.
Yes, this is the Scary New Internet Trend you've heard all about on cable news. But Mr. Park is infatuated with a less familiar side of the online hangout: how he can lean back on one of the mismatched couches here in his halogen-lit living room, and how, if he's lucky, the digital casino will drop a stranger onto his laptop who just might share an intimate story. A story like the heartbreaker recently confided by a Norwegian teen reeling from the end of a romance with an older guy.
The K-State senior practices a new kind of relationship tourism, to borrow one anthropologist's phrase, and college students like him account for much of its global boom. Instead of just Facebooking with friends, they're mocking, flirting, and partying with anonymous strangers, too.
In other words, they're doing the same stuff they've always done. Only way, way nastier, because once they get bored, they can click "next" and be 99-percent sure of never seeing each other again.
And who knows? Maybe they spin that virtual wheel one more time, and they end up chatting with Megan Fox.
"It's almost like an upgrade button," Mr. Park, 23, says. "Because I know that there's, like, someone prettier out there. And there's someone, like, willing to engage with me in like a deeper level out there. So I don't feel bad pressing 'next,' really."
Forget the profiles and friends lists and other digital doodads you're used to from sophisticated social media like Facebook. Chatroulette is a brutally crude platform cooked up by a 17-year-old high-school student in Moscow. You get one box with your image, one with a stranger's, and a third for typing messages.
Mr. Park has spent much of this semester chatting up those strangers for an anthropology project, thousands of one-minute stands that collectively make him as much an expert as anyone on an Internet sensation that made its debut in December and drew nearly four million visitors in February alone. Now he and other researchers are emerging with some early data. Their studies show that Chatroulette is not, to quote a blog, "mostly dudes masturbating."
OK, the truth is they are dudes, most of them young. But the majority of them are clothed.
As usual, where that many students are hanging out, companies are trying to make a buck off them.
At least two Web sites, RandomDorm and CampusLIVE, are already sanitizing the social-media carnival with knockoff sites limited to students who register with ".edu" e-mail addresses—the hope being that if you strip away the anonymity you'll draw fewer creeps and more girls. Other competitors include Tinychat Next (which filters chats by subject matter), flyChat (for iPhones), and Shuffle People (like Chatroulette, but arguably better designed).
"If you walk through a dormitory on a Friday or Saturday night, you are very, very likely to see students on Chatroulette or a comparable service talking to random people from across the country," says Boris Revsin, the 23-year-old chief executive of CampusLIVE, who started his company in a dorm at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
So why are students so smitten with random video-chatting?
They'll say it's "funny" and "exciting." But Michael Wesch, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State who teaches Mr. Park's digital-ethnography class, thinks something more is happening.
"Think about the anxiety of trying to impress a girl when you're young," Mr. Wesch says. These days the soft-spoken 34-year-old is a new-media rock star—called "the explainer" by Wired magazine and admired for videos on education and technology that have been viewed by millions—but it's easy to imagine him as an awkward high-school kid in Fairbury, Neb., anguishing over whether to ask out a girl. Teenage Romeos get very little practice at impressing girls, he said, because every time they get shot down, "that's one less girl in the pool." If you grow up where he did, the pool can be pretty tiny.
Now try Chatroulette.
She nexts you.
"You can just keep going," says Mr. Wesch. "You can try something new each time. You can try to present yourself in a slightly different way. And I think you could actually, over time, develop a different persona."
Careful, though. Chatroulette tends to rattle people the first time they try it. They'll be nexting their way through the strangers on their screen, when, usually within the first few clicks, they come across a Webcam zoomed in on someone's penis.
This experience is even more rattling when the penis is projected on a giant screen in a university seminar room, as it was when a reporter visited Mr. Wesch's class recently.
The professor reddened. Next!
The session was something of a class field trip on Chatroulette, whose demographics Mr. Park has systematically surveyed with the help of his classmates. Students came prepared for full cultural immersion. First, that meant a prerecorded video of Jessica Alba looking into a Webcam. Looped spoofs like this are part of the site's scenery, the gag being that you can bait some dumbbell into thinking they're talking to a hot babe. Then she's gone. Surprise! Maybe you're facing a pimply 13-year-old laughing at you (or worse, recording your humiliation and uploading it to YouTube).
Another local custom: Dress crazy, and you're less likely to get nexted. One of Mr. Wesch's students wore a Star Wars stormtrooper helmet. Another pranced around in a gorilla suit with Converse sneakers.
The ploy worked. The giant penis was soon replaced by one of the more than 20,000 people online this particular Thursday afternoon, a 21-year-old girl with dark sunglasses who was especially interested in the gorilla.
Typing on his laptop, the first thing the professor tried to do was figure out if the person staring down at the class was real.
Wesch: "Are you looped?"
Her: "ican hear u geek boy"
Later that night, in the more intimate setting of Mr. Park's living room, the experience was completely different. He sometimes has trouble starting a conversation on Chatroulette, so he has tried getting people to engage by putting his girlfriend on camera first and then shouldering his way into the frame. But on this night he quickly found a willing partner in a 15-year-old girl from Norway with a striped shirt and a morose face that was bathed in eerie yellowish light.
She told him about breaking up with a boy a few weeks earlier, a 20-year-old she thinks about a lot.
Park: "when i was 15, i thought i loved someone. and i missed her a lot when she broke up with me. now, it means nothing."
Her: "i have actually tried to take suicide."
Park: "well, don't try it again. trust me you want to live to be my age because, it's super fun."
She smiled slightly in the corner of her mouth. A couple of minutes later, her image froze.
"Dangit," he said.
In her place, he soon saw an old Asian guy nodding his head like he was listening to rock music. Yet another potential partner for the student to chat up.
"What's going on, man?"