Nothing can really prepare you for the latest online phenomenon, Chatroulette.
The social Web site, created just three months ago by a 17-year-old Russian named Andrey Ternovskiy, drops you into an unnerving world where you are connected through Web cams to a random succession of strangers from across the globe. You see them, they see you. You talk to them, they talk to you. Or not. The site, which is gaining thousands of users a day and some news coverage, has a faddish feel, but those who study online vagaries see a glimpse into a surreal future, a turn in the direction of the Internet.
Before you rush off to your computer to try Chatroulette, it's only fair to let you know what you're getting into. Entering is akin to speed-dating tens of thousands of strangers — some clothed, some not.
The home page is sparse, with two empty boxes — one labeled Stranger, the other, aptly, You. When you press the Play button, your Web cam is activated and you are told that Chatroulette is "Looking for a random stranger." Up pops a live video and you can chat with the person on the other end. Hit Next and you are confronted with a new stranger.
In its simplest form, the site does exactly what its name says — it pulls you into a game of roulette. I used the service for the first time a few weeks ago, and I found it both enthralling and distasteful, yet I kept going back for more.
At one moment I was sitting in the living room with my wife, and on entering the site, we were siphoned into a dimly lit room with a man who told us he was in Russia. Moments later we were watching a woman dance half-naked in a kitchen in Turkey, and then a gaggle of laughing college students in a dorm room somewhere. With each click of the mouse we were transported into a stranger's life.
After five minutes, we disconnected and sat in silence, disturbed by the rawness of some of what we had seen.
But our curiosity drew us back the next day, this time better prepared. Before we knew it, we were talking to a couple in Napa Valley about wine. We clicked Next and there were three naked men in Amsterdam dancing to Rick Astley music. Next, two computer students in a classroom in China asked us about New York. Then a man told us he was in jail. (Someone who looked like an armed guard stood off in the distance.)
There is no way to know the overall number of Chatroulette users. But fewer than 5,000 were using the site at any one time during my first visit. When I checked last week, that number had jumped to 50,000.
The growth could signal a nascent desire for anonymity online. Our lives used to be private by default, yet with the advent of each social network, privacy has become increasingly difficult to preserve. Every status update or photo we share online becomes a tattoo of where we've been and who we've been with.
In contrast, Chatroulette is a social Web site that allows you to navigate somewhat incognito.
"There's no log in, there's no registration, and that's fundamentally different from Facebook and Twitter, where your real persona is tied back to you," said Sarita Yardi, a doctoral candidate at the Georgia Institute of Technology who studies the role of technology in teenagers' lives.
Then again, the anonymity can be fleeting. Screen shots of people using Chatroulette have popped up everywhere. Is one of them you?
From my experience on the site, echoed by those I've spoken to, it seems as if 90 percent of users are genuinely looking for novel and unexpected conversation; the rest — well, let's just say they have debauchery in mind.
"Right now it's kind of like an online Lord of the Flies," Yardi said. "I suspect it won't exist into its current state in the future, but I think it will spin out into a new kind of category online."