Creativity explodes on Chatroulette

From a piano player serenading strangers to a Canadian indie band announcing its next album, the popular Internet service has become a place where artists, musicians and game players can be truly inspired.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
An improvisational piano player known as Merton has inspired millions to watch videos of him serenading random strangers on Chatroulette. Even the famous musician Ben Folds has now gotten into the mix, and the site first known as a place for men to get their jollies is now inspiring a wide variety of creativity. Merton

You can play bingo on it. Unknown piano players and rock stars alike can use it to serenade strangers. Bands can announce their albums there. And you can even sell a nightclub's worth of tickets for an evening spent experimenting with it.

What is it? Why, Chatroulette, of course.

For about two months now, people all over the world have been flocking to the site, which offers little more than a way to connect to random strangers on the other end of a Web cam. Built by a Russian high school student, the site launched in November but became the latest online addiction sometime in February after thousands of people discovered how easy it was to spend hours seeing what other people staring at Webcams were doing.

Many people, of course, were both repelled and compelled by viral tales of men exposing themselves to the world at large. But while many think Chatroulette is no more than a place for random men to get their jollies, a growing number of creative people are finding emergent ways to use the service to express themselves artistically, to entertain big crowds, to play in-the-moment games with strangers, and much more, all within the constraints of a service where you might lose your audience in a second.

"One of the most interesting ways people [are using Chatroulette] is doing these artistic creations," said Sarita Yardi, a doctoral candidate at Georgia Tech who has spent a lot of time researching the site. "It gives people access to one of the most limited resources of all, which is people's time and attention. People love merging new and exciting [technology] in new and creative ways. It's hard to go online and get people to look at anything. But here, you have an instant audience."

Serenading with a piano
If you haven't seen it by now, you're pretty much guaranteed to be charmed by a simple YouTube video of a man playing a piano on Chatroulette. It sounds implausible, but the video (see below)--and a previous, yanked version--got millions of views because the man, called Merton, is absolutely wonderful as he sees someone show up on Chatroulette and instantly begins singing a song about them, based only on what sees on his screen.

A lot of folks thought Merton was the star singer-songwriter Ben Folds, but that wasn't the case. Still, after Folds began getting flooded with compliments for his Chatroulette brilliance, he knew he had to respond. And so last Saturday, at a concert in Charlotte, N.C., he got 2,000 fans worked up by doing his own version of Merton's now-famous piano improv for the benefit of a few random strangers on the other end of his Webcam. And now, nearly 2 million people have watched "Ode to Merton" on YouTube (see video below).

But playing piano on Chatroulette isn't the only way people have found to use the site creatively. Many have found it a great way to play games, both with their own friends and with strangers.

Take the case, for example, of a Chatroulette user who appears in Folds' video holding up a sign, held sideways, that reads "If you turn your head, I win" and which has a bunch of hash marks signifying each time that someone on Folds' side of the camera did his bidding. He got to add a lot of hash marks for winning during Folds' concert.

To Sarah Austin, a San Francisco Bay Area Internet culture and celebrity reporter, that's just the beginning of the kinds of simple games Chatroulette allows friends and strangers alike to play. In a Twitter post Wednesday night, Austin tweeted that she was "playing a guessing game on Chatroulette.com with my friends," and in an interview, she said that she has frequently used the site to play games like I spy, tic-tac-toe or rock-paper-scissors or tell jokes to the folks she encounters through the site. And while she sometimes enjoys these instant digital meetups alone, she and her friends also do it as a way of having fun together.

"Basically, Chatroulette in itself is a game, because it has a random nature," Austin said. "There's a lot of people out there playing a game within a game...[and my friends and I] share the experience, in our giggles, our screams and our reactions. It's that anticipation of clicking through each different person on their Webcam, and that build up and sharing that with somebody else is really exciting."

Chatroulette Bingo
For aficionados of small club concerts, a parlor game called Hipster Bingo has been making the rounds for some time. The idea is to spot the various kinds of hipsters one might find at a show, folks with "ironic trucker caps," who have "old-school Chuck Taylors," or who sport a "circa-1968 Jagger haircut."

To Sarah Hood, a graphic designer from Brooklyn, Chatroulette seemed like an obvious venue to play more or less the same game. Early in the site's history, she recalled in an interview, she and her roommate used to bet a few dollars or the next living room cleaning job on who could spot, say, three girls in a row on the male-dominated Chatroulette. Before long, they had elevated to a more involved version of Chatroulette Bingo, competing time after time to see who could find something first.

Others, too, had come up with the same concept, and until Thursday, there were at least two online examples of hand-drawn Chatroulette Bingo cards that were offered up for folks to download and play with.

But Hood and her roommate took it to the next level, teaming up with the roommate's employer, a social-media strategy agency called Attention USA, to put together an interactive site that automatically generates a Chatroulette Bingo card replete with the kinds of people and things one might find on the site: a cross-dresser, a gamer, a fake penis, someone holding up a peace sign, someone dancing, a "dude that looks like Jesus," and many more.

There are now at least three different versions of Chatroulette Bingo, including this one, which automatically generates a board depending how many players there are. Chatroulette Bingo

According to Nat Thomson, Attention USA's creative director, their version of Chatroulette Bingo got thousands of visits and hundreds of tweets, made the front page of both Digg and Buzzfeed and was featured on Mashable, all in one day.

Also in Brooklyn, Jin Moon, the stage manager at a local nightclub called Union Hall, had been talking with a co-worker about Chatroulette and whether they might find a way to fold it into some kind of public event.

It wasn't hard to convince the Union Hall brass to run with the experiment and not long ago, Moon inaugurated Chatroulette night. That evening, she set up a laptop computer on stage, hooked it up to a big screen and encouraged volunteers from the audience to step up and play with the service in front of everyone.

"It turned out to be really funny," Moon said. "We had weird conversations with people. We saw a lot of penises."

Moon also said that a number of the people that showed up through Chatroulette were from countries like Spain, France, and Brazil and who didn't speak English. "So people who were in the audience who spoke those languages would come up to the computer and start chatting with those people," she said.

What was really interesting, she recalled, was that the Chatroulette users that showed up on screen had no idea they were actually interacting with a whole music hall's worth of people. "It became this big reveal, in a way," Moon said. "Then it was interesting how they would react to that. A lot would say, literally, 'I feel like I'm famous' because they were participating in front of more than one person."

Union Hall has scheduled a second Chatroulette night for March 29, and Moon is expecting a packed house.

Album release
For the most part, Chatroulette is a place where a single person, or at most a small group of people, is clicking their way through a world of possible encounters, lingering for a minute or two and then moving on. But there's no reason, of course, that the service can't also be used by those with more commercial motives.

Take the Canadian indie band Holy F---. On March 12, the group--which has slightly more extreme standards than CNET News--used Chatroulette to publicly announce the May 11 release date of its second album, "Latin." At the same time, the band also began streaming the first single from the record, "Latin America," on Chatroulette.

Clearly, the service has a lot of potential for artists, little-known or world-famous, to spread word about new projects. In an interview at the South by Southwest Interactive festival earlier this month, Gerald Casale, one of the two front-men for the 1980s new wave band Devo, told CNET News that, "I think we should, absolutely [make videos on Chatroulette]. When I first found out about Chatroulette, I was really inspired immediately. I checked it out, and it's great."


And being an Internet service, Chatroulette obviously has to have room for cats. Not to miss the opportunity to fill that niche, Becca Laurie and her boyfriend, Andy Silva, both 24 and in the music industry--and also, coincidentally, from Brooklyn--last month launched a site where they regularly posted pictures of their cat, Duck, interacting with strangers on Chatroulette. The site's name? Catroulette, of course.

"So far [the best thing has] been seeing and hearing others' reactions to Duck," Laurie said last month. "It's a nice combination of people being caught off guard and happy. Which is nice to come home to at the end of the day."