The first time “Hung.,” a 24-year-old from the UK, used Chatroulette to masturbate in front of a stranger, he was in college, late in his teens or perhaps early in his 20s. He doesn’t have many details to share about the experience, besides a few recalled feelings. “I definitely had a few butterflies,” he says. “It was hot, it always is when you finally find someone.”
Hung., whose profile photo is an upward angle shot of a large penis, says he doesn’t use the site for masturbation “really often.” When he does, he says it’s rare to find women who are up for participating. The site is, predictably, largely male — or, as he puts it, “the sausage to pussy ration is ridiculous … if you do [meet a woman], they probably don’t want what I want.”
Therein lies a large part of the problem with Chatroulette, a site once hailed as a friendly place to meet strangers from all over the world. In 2010, Chatroulette was the “it” site. It was profiled religiously, as was its eventual rise and decline in popularity. By June of that year, reporters had gone from singing its praise as “the future of the internet” to writing its obituary (“Cause of death: penises”). The frenzy around it died as numbers began to decline from the tens of thousands to mere thousands, and coverage waned. Its name resurfaced over the years as a curiosity for those who went through the same “hey, remember when?” phase so many do with old fads.
Browsing the site today, you’ll find an interface slightly more sleek than the original AIM-like screen. It’s been eight years since the site’s supposed death, but a small community persists. The men who remain — and make no mistake, they are overwhelmingly men — still consider it a place to waste a little time online. Between the occasional, curious user who is truly interested in just chatting, are the ones everyone has come to expect: the on-cam men jerking off.
The question of why someone would want to jerk off in front of a stranger is sort of an exhibitionist self-definition in itself: because you get to jerk off in front of a stranger. As one user put it, there’s freedom in knowing you’ve never met this person and probably never will. “This site and others like it are what happens when you give people anonymity,” says Ryan, a user from Pennsylvania. “I could whip it out right now for you, and as long as I don’t show my face to you, I could walk by you tomorrow on the street and you would never know it was the same person.”
But the conundrum of Chatroulette as it exists today is how often men vehemently deny to me that they masturbate in front of other men, and how few women there actually are on the service. Over and over, I asked users currently in the act why they use the platform to find women when they’re the first to admit there are so few. Their answers, typed with one hand, were usually something about how they were forced to skip around a lot. Most would just end our conversation immediately.
Chatroulette still allows its users to report anyone they find violating its rules, but very few that I talked to will file a complaint against someone for nudity. Most say it doesn’t bother them. “If someone wants to get naked on here… whatever,” says Ryan. “I wish they would give me a warning before throwing that in my face, but whatever. There are other sites like this too. You’ll see worse things.” He says he will, however, report anyone spreading hate messages or committing violence. “I have reported a few racist people with like Nazi flags up or other awful messages.”
Most users are uninterested in discussing the rules of the service with me, but others say they wish there were better constraints in place. One said they wanted for a feature that would allow them to block other men, while one user from Texas told me they think the site needs better protection for minors. The user from Croatia, who described the current community as “very horny,” says he’s not surprised by what the site’s become. “If you give most men the tools for harassment online, they’ll do it.”
And the issue of consent on Chatroulette is a tricky one. Some believe logging onto the service is as good as saying yes to seeing a rogue dick; others says they leave their clothes on and ask first before they start removing anything. “A lot of women on here know what it’s about,” a man from Ireland told me. Many people told me they often move their conversations to Skype for a more sturdy sexual relationship if they find a partner they like.
When I asked users what others sites they used for the same purpose, few had an answer. Chat service Omegle was the most common, but thanks to Chatroulette’s notoriety and easy use, it remains the go-to solution for many looking for a quick, free way to get their rocks off with a stranger.
“I know when you say it like that, it is kinda mad, I’ve never met these people yet we’re happy to pretty much have sex via cam,” Hung. tells me. “I would definitely say don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, and if it’s not your bag simply skip to the next person or find a slightly cleaner chatroom.”
That Chatroulette has become a kind of Wild West cam site is perhaps less a sign of its decline and more an inevitable evolution into what is functionally a fetish site with some chat thrown in, thanks to its low barrier to entry and potential for anonymity for all its users. Although its popularity has declined since its initial spotlight, there still exists the potential for endless random matches. For some, it’s an exhibitionist paradise, where people (but primarily men) can freely do as they please without ever revealing their real identities.
“Good luck with your work, don’t give up hope, because of some [Chatroulette]-wankers,” a 19-year-old tells me, shortly after having asked me for nude photos. “I had some really memorable conversations here, with people all over the world — nice to see, that everyone is a human being and we are not really different to each other.”