All bets are off in the social media world

Don’t talk to strangers.

It’s a message instilled in us by our parents time and time again as the cardinal rule of safety. We listened carefully as children, mainly because this piece of advice was necessary for our everyday safety.

Rita Yeung | Daily Trojan

However, for today’s college students and younger generations growing up in the age of technology, people are finding the rule harder to comply with. As digital interaction furiously expands, the Internet has completely changed the dynamic for this outdated, cautionary childhood lesson.

We might not talk to strangers in person, but it’s a different story in the virtual world.

But what’s so exciting about sharing computer screen time with a stranger?

Through the World Wide Web’s plethora of social media networks, forums, chat rooms, dating sites and online communities, communication among strangers has not just become a tool for business but a popular form of entertainment.

The thrill-seeking and fun is made possible through the Internet’s many unregulated platforms — a communicative free-for-all allowing online acquaintances to share all types of information, including messages of explicit content.

Coming off the heels of successful talkback sites like Twitter is a new craze with its own twist on online communication: Chatroulette. For those who have yet to discover this new addiction, Chatroulette is a website that pairs random strangers throughout the world for conversations via users’ webcams.

It’s an Internet creeper’s dream.

Following in the footsteps of the young minds behind social media giants like MySpace and Facebook, a 17-year-old Russian high school student launched Chatroulette in November of last year. The site somehow caught the eyes of the New York Times and Good Morning America, and since then Chatroulette has brought strangers together from all over the world via webcam.

Chatroulette’s increasing buzz is unusual: Most would agree that the unassuming masses are not really that interesting. Yet, in a single day, Chatroulette registers about half a million visitors with about 50,000 people chatting away at any given time.

Though services like Skype allow you to video chat with friends and loved ones, Chatroulette instead tests the public’s curiosity of the unknown.

Wondering why people used this voyeuristic talk service, I embarked on a series of conversations with happenstance chat mates encountering a wide variety of people on the Chatroulette spectrum.

Amused by the unpredictability of it all, a curly-haired, wide-eyed girl with Hello Kitty posters on her wall loves “seeing what people will do.” It appears some users log on to Chatroulette to observe people in their personal habitats and everyday spaces.

There are other reasons too. Looking to broaden his social scene, a balding middle-aged man in Kansas called Chatroulette “a community to meet people.” Though companionship might not always be an eventual goal, it’s not uncommon to find yourself talking to a complete stranger for several minutes without realizing the time has gone by. In this sense, Chatroulette offers a virtual place for conversations you already strike up with strangers in your day-to-day activities, at a coffee shop, airport or store.

Chatroulette is no stranger to controversy, as any conversation has the potential to dangerously transform into a risqué video chat, as evidenced by the countless number of shirtless young men and crude images that you would rather not see. In these cases, the reason for thrill is evident.

Celebrities have even started to jump on the trend. Paris Hilton, Jessica Alba and Nicole Richie are just some of the starlets that have taken a break from Tweeting and moved on to webcam communication.

Seeking the creator’s original intent for Chatroulette, a woman sitting with her baby in Taiwan said she just wants “good conversation.”

It’s not hard to see why college students are infatuated with the novelty of a site like this. As natural consumers of technology, communication through Chatroulette doesn’t seem the least bit daunting. Whereas other audiences might reject emerging forms of digital media, college students have adopted and embraced each one. With texting, instant messaging and Skype as the predecessors, Chatroulette falls nicely in line.

Finally, a student pops up on my screen— a fact that’s evidenced by the books, bowls of cereal and homework material surrounding him.

What’s the real reason we love Chatroulette?

It helps us procrastinate.

Christopher Agutos is a junior majoring in political science and public relations. His column “Pop Life” runs every other Tuesday.