What Can A Planner Learn From 2 Hours on Chatroulette?

Jennifer Evans-Cowley, Phd, AICP, spends a couple of hours exploring the phenomenon that is chatroulette.com. Chatroulette sets you up to videochat with a complete stranger. Are there applications for the future of public participation in planning?

I admit after watching the segment on chatroulette on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show I was curious. What is this chatroulette thing all about? Chatroulette is a website that allows random pairs of strangers to engage in conversations through their webcams. It is like Skype, but instead of talking to someone you selected you talk to a stranger.

It's a simple concept, you connect your webcam and select start game. If you don't like the person you see you simply click next. You just continue through with people nexting you or you nexting them. Conversations can be carried on via audio or by texting in the chat box. One of the fascinating things about this website is that it was invented by a 17 year old high school student in Moscow. This student launched the site back in November 2009 and its use has grown exponentially. Each time I have visited the site there were more than 20,000 people on at the time.


The author on chatroulette.

As someone who researches online public participation, I wondered what I could learn as a planner and the potential of chatroulette as a participation tool. Last week I decided to take the plunge and explore chatroulette. I decided to document my experience over the course of two hours. I posted a sign inviting people to talk to me about their use of chatroulette. In two hours I encountered 90 different strangers, plus one instance of a repeat person. A sign asking people to talk about their use of chatroulette may not be the most effective way to engage in a conversation, 48 percent of people nexted me before I was able to start a conversation. It seemed that some people were not at their computer as 20 percent did not respond when I tried to engage in conversation. And while there was much hype about nudity, at the time I was on only 8 percent of the people were naked.

For the 25 percent of people who did decide to engage in chat with me, what I learned was interesting. These people were from 15 different countries including Canada, China, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, India, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. While I didn't ask age it was clear that people ranged from their upper teens to 50s representing a wide age demographic.

Most of those I chatted with claimed it was their first time on chatroulette and they were trying it because a friend had suggested it. They were looking to see something funny or to stave off boredom. For those that wanted to see something funny I asked what the funniest thing they had seen was. One person reported that the stranger had their webcam on an episode of America's Funniest Home Videos when a funny baby video was showing. Some were there to entertain showing magic tricks or silly faces. Another was there to practice English. Others were there because they wanted to see naked people.


The now infamous musical improv chatroulette.

The part of the experience that I found highly engaging was discussing what country the stranger is from. Invariably the stranger has something to say about the United States, whether it be a city they have visited or their desire to visit. I have visited many of the countries these strangers were from and was able to share my impressions of their countries. These exchanges were valued by both parties as a form of recognition of the broad reach that the internet has in sharing cultural experiences.

After two hours I believe I got a good feel for the site and I wonder is there a future for chatroulette behind the first time randomness or seeking online sex? And is there a way planners could potentially use this or a like site for engagement? My response is maybe. Given the enormous user base for this site, perhaps there is potential for planners. I'm curious about the ideas of others for the potential for chatroulette (or like tools for engagement). For example, based on my experience with others sharing their impressions of places in the United States and in other countries is there potential for tourism planning. This site could provide the opportunity for quick feedback on ideas for tourism generation. I can think of examples where communities have proposed ideas they think would elevate them to a tier one tourism destination. These ideas could be bounced off a wide variety of international tourists. Perhaps another application would be quick microsurveys on design elements. For example, people could be shown different design proposals for feedback. While these might not be your residents, it could provide feedback on whether a design has universal appeal across cultures.

Chatroulette is expanding, with new sites in the works such as music.chatroulette.com. As the website expands there may be an opportunity for planners to engage with strangers on planning issues. I invite you to share your ideas about the potential of chatroulette for planning.


Jennifer Evans-Cowley, PhD, AICP, is an Associate Professor and Section Head of City and Regional Planning at The Ohio State University. She is also the instructor of Planetizen's AICP Exam Preparation Course.

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