OFF THE GRID

Not News (but Good to Be Reminded): The Internet Is for Wankers

Feb 12, 10 | 7:02 AM   byMichael Wolff
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The Internet has had many inflection points related to the transmogrification of human behavior. The latest what the hell? instance could be Chatroulette.

If the Internet is about the democratization of self-expression, then this is a pure form. It reduces all of the desperate and determined desire to be seen and heard and acknowledged to its essence.

Surveying the 16-year commercial history of the Internet, it might fairly be that this is what it comes down to.

The great struggle to normalize the medium, to pay no attention to what actually is going on behind the curtain, to stress what about it is good for all mankind, is rather hoisted on its own petard.

Chatroulette takes that most prosaic of Internet genres—chatting with strangers—and adds video to it. Odd that it took so long for someone to think of this. Cue, for the last time, the old New Yorker cartoon—from the days when people who read the New Yorker could speak condescendingly about such thing as chat rooms—about no one knowing if you’re a dog on the Internet. Chatroulette is a form of speed dating in which a real-time figure appears on your screen (and you on his) who can be accepted or rejected, allowing you to move immediately on to the next. Chatroulette, which introduces (well, sort of introduces) people from diverse countries—even those in autocratic (and sexually repressed) lands, where Chatroulette does not seem to have been blocked yet—finds what curiously seems to be a common human interest.

Oh, and I use the word “people” in the purest Internet sense: 90% young men and 10% intrepid women.

What many of these men are pursuing here on Chatroulette is, it seems, an oddly basic desire, as well as a legal way, to flash. Although it is much more than just a flash. It’s really quite a long, slow, methodological exposure. A celebration, perhaps. Where before we generally assumed that this was extreme and pathological behavior limited to a very small fringe, it turns out to be, at least for young men using the latest peer-to-peer sites, about one in four who have this interest.

Chatroulette is a catalogue of real time phalluses. It’s in your face priapicness. It’s jack-off central. It’s really quite astounding.

And it strips away a lot of pretense.

The masturbatory aspect of Internet expressiveness could, of course, hardly be missed; the growth of the medium has been fueled by, in addition to the excessively self-indulgent and self-involved, millions, or, surely, billions of instances of auto-erotic internet sex. But somehow this could all be rationalized as the new behavior. Community. Social networks. Memes.

I’m not sure it is so easy to rationalize Chatroulette. It pretty clearly is what it is.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
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