We are the generation of digital multitasking. If we are not Google-ing, we are Facebook stalking, bbm-ing, texting, talking on the iPhone, writing a paper, tweeting, or (the most recent techno pastime) Chatroulette-ing. You name it, we can do it all at once. But is all this technology screwing with our day-to-day communication skills?
Last week I was introduced to the latest trend in virtual communicating: Chatroulette. I can’t tell if I love it, hate it, or think it’s creepy, but as of late I’ve been addicted to it.
Chatroulette.com is remarkable site, connecting random strangers all over the world in a one-on-one online video chat room. To play this Internet version of “Next” all you need is a computer and a webcam. The site is simple: It sets you up with a video-chat partner at random and at any time. You can stay with a given cohort and chat it up, or, if you don’t like who or sometimes what you see, just click “next.”
As my roommate and I shopped around on Chatroulette, we met men, women, animals, and plenty of inanimate objects, but mostly we met college students who were bored or procrastinating. One of our first chat “partners” was an 18-year-old college student who seemed particularly and pleasantly normal compared to the goat with whom we had previously been chatting. And, explicit material and strange faces in black light notwithstanding, the majority of Chatroulette participants are just average, everyday college students. After all, we are the generation of constant virtual entertainment, so it’s hardly surprising that our age group makes up the majority on Chatroulette—or is it?
With all that college students have to plan for, with all the opportunities we are given, and all of the places we have yet to see, why spend all of our time looking at a screen?
I left Chatroulette at home and went to class only to be bothered by one of the most uncomfortable social situations I have experienced while living in Isla Vista. Arriving a few minutes early, I walked into the classroom as a few students from the previous class were still meandering out. When I sat down, one guy who was just about to leave looked over in my direction and said, “You look good.” I wondered aloud, “Do I know you?” Naturally, the guy responded by asking me if I believed in God, then Jesus, and as I became more uncomfortable he crept closer and interrogated, “Why are these questions so difficult for you to answer?”
With what little politeness I could summon, I told him a) I have a boyfriend, b) mind your own business, and c) look up “social skills” in the dictionary.
To abruptly quiz some random stranger about their religious views probably seems normal to many of the online generation. Internet dating Web sites cut out the middleman—also known as courtship—and simply cut to the chase. Fill out a series of questions — I’m sure my friend would have a chance to put down his religious preferences — and within a few moments lists of prospective love interests pop up on the computer screen! Perhaps I was too hasty in assuming that this student’s interrogation was a preamble to asking me out on a date. But with millions of lonely men and women finding love in cyberspace, it’s no wonder people are transferring machine-like manners to their real-world relationships.
Electronic communication tends to impersonalize our daily lives. It takes away from the integrity of keeping dates, being on time, apologizing to or thanking someone. Even texting: I would much rather cancel on someone through text than by a phone call or in person. What is the consequence to ditching a date through text — they don’t respond? In the same calloused vein, Chatroulette makes it easy to be rude—or just strange.
“Want to do a little Chatroulette to get this party started?” my roommate asked the other night. Our favorite thing to shout when we see a creep or simply get bored of the partner is to shout “See you never!” But will we never see these people again—or are these random strangers closer than we realize to being our social circle? According to the popular “six degrees of separation” idea, and online group, everyone is just six steps away from any other person on the planet. (Someone you know is one step away from you; everyone they know is two steps away from you, and so on.)
I always thought online dating was designed for older people with dwindling social crowds and narrower interests. College students have endless interests and opportunities to meet a match. Are we so incapable of simply speaking in person to someone with common interests—or is the Internet our common interest?
The Brad Paisley song “Online” talks about how he’s so much cooler in cyberspace. “Cause even on a slow day I could have a three-way,” he sings. “Chat with two women at one time.” But it’s all smoke and mirrors. Anyone can be anyone. While I’d shrivel up and die without technology, I prefer to be better in person. Keep it real, I.V.!