This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Voice of Peter Kay: Do you remember… outside? Kiss your friends? Are you looking into each other’s eyes as you hear their voices clearly and not jerkily over crowded Wi-Fi connections?
I’m sure the majority of people reading this will have experienced a video call before we even find ourselves living and loving at The Time Of. Coronavirus, but in the absence of any sort of f2f interaction with the people we love (or hate), we’ve downloaded a bunch of new video apps to stay connected for work and play. There’s Houseparty, which like most new apps at 30, makes me feel like an OAP when trying to navigate new buttons. Then there is Zoom, which primarily allows people with jobs to attend meetings three times a day so bosses can make sure no one is having fun at home. I guess there are others, but frankly I don’t care, and some of you need to spend time with yourself better.
But what about the OG video chat room? Yes i’m talking about Chatroulette. At its peak in 2010, the site – created by a 17-year-old high school student in Moscow – had around 35,000 active users at all times. Most of them are men. Or parts of men, at least. At the start of the last decade, Chatroulette was mainly used as a pre-drink business in college (whey!), And any real people you met would probably ask you to “show boobs”. Statistics as of 2010 assumed that Chatroulette was “89% male, 47% American, and 13% perverted at the time.” But what about now? Is there anyone even there? If yes, why ? And what do they have to say about the coronavirus?
According to the previous statistics, about one in eight turns on Chatroulette “resulted in someone apparently naked, exposing themselves or having sex.” I soon find out that in 2020 the number is closer to seven in eight rounds. The site now offers three different options: random (maybe a few dicks), filtered (theoretically no dicks), and unfiltered (actually just dicks). Hoping to optimize my chances of meeting someone’s face, I choose Filtered.
Fortunately, I was immediately met by…. a penis. Then another, and another, and another, and then I meet Salman, an adorable Moroccan boy in his twenties, living on the Costa del Sol. He is quarantined far from his family, from a village near Chefchouen, the blue and white town that served as the backdrop to French Montana “Famous” Video. He spends his evening rolling Moroccan hashish and drinking Berber tea, and we discuss my recent trip to Marrakech, the last thing I did before the end of the world as we know it. Then we go to the real shit.
“Tell me, do you think the coronavirus was invented by America on purpose? ” he asks. While I’m a big fan of conspiracy theories, especially those involving the American as the Great Satan (AKA World History), I’m unfortunately not convinced. Then a ginger legend serenades me with a rendition of “Sleep Now in the Fire” on his electric guitar, then an old Polish gentleman who was on Chatroulette “looking for inspiration in dark places” for his music. He then started playing me some of his latest beats, which weren’t at all what I expected, and sounded like they were created by a teenage rapper Soundcloud. Some lo-fi beats to quarantine, if you will.
After that, there is a GIRL – a rare Pokémon! She is 18, comes from Manchester and wears a red hoodie. What the hell is she doing in this hellish landscape? “I’m stuck inside and just looking for people to really talk to… but mostly I find cocks.” After logging out I get a message telling me that my feed has been temporarily interrupted due to “suspicious activity” which is pretty wild considering how many cocks I have seen. Does my face… look like a cock?
No matter what I do – change my VPN settings, change my laptop – I can’t restart, which leads me to assume that my IP address has been blocked; great content moderation if I had been a huge sensitive penis, but considering the fact that I’m not, it’s very annoying. I’m done for the night.
Carried by a single glass of quarantine wine, I decided to relaunch Chatroulette on Saturday evening. To minimize my chances of being blocked again, this time I choose the “random” option. Indeed, I am greeted by a burst of cocks, followed by a white dread listening to reggae who shows me his pot of weed, labeled “Blue Dream 1”, before disconnecting.
A few more turns of the metaphorical wheel results in a new friendship in Santorini, Greece. “How are you doing with corona?” He asks me as an opener. We discuss our respective national corona stats, how long we’re in quarantine, and what we can each see out of our windows – him: the Aegean and five cats sunbathing, me: a tree and some walls – before he has to leave for his violin lesson online.
I meet a lovely old Ukrainian, but we can’t get past the language barrier, and a young American in a trucker cap who – when he gets up and flushes the toilet two minutes into our conversation – turns out to be shitting. I think it’s safe to assume he hasn’t washed his hands afterwards.
I see a man jerking off in the bath, a man jerking off in the shower, a man jerking off with a black and white filter on his camera like it’s some kind of fucking romantic indie movie, a eerily minor looking wanker, a micropenis, a monstrous penis and a lot of gray joggers. Then I meet the most disturbing wanker of all: a chef in uniform, in the kitchen of a restaurant. To his credit, he actually asked me if I was ready to see him jerk off (I succeeded), but at this point I was so horrified at the level of health code violation that j was a witness that I had forgotten everything about the idea of consent. Even when this is all over, I may never find the courage to eat out again.
A few clicks later, I meet Clément, a construction worker in quarantine alone in Paris where he works far from his partner and his friends from Bordeaux, whom he usually visits every weekend. What did he do in quarantine? “That,” he said, brandishing a beer. “And the kitchen. Usually I work 12 hours a day so it’s good to have time to cook for myself.
Does he often use Chatroulette? “No, I haven’t been here for maybe five years. But I’m stuck inside so I thought I could see if I could meet people ”. How are things going for him? He’s laughing. “Well, I’ve been here for maybe two hours, and you’re the third person I’ve spoken to. ” And the rest? “So many cocks.”
My last friend of the evening is Mario in Copenhagen. We discuss the danish’s cold manners, and he shows me his insanely well-stocked drinks cabinet. “Do you mind if I have a drink?” He asks, “I don’t usually drink alone, but it would be nice for us to have a drink together.”
Mario is going through a divorce and studying for his second bachelor’s degree online now that the universities are closed. He spends the next 40 minutes chain-smoking rollies while telling me how he uses his quarantine hours to get into buying and trading stocks. He advises me to invest in gold if I have disposable income, and we move on to discussing game theory in the context of the coronavirus. I focus more than I would if a man had tried to do this to me IRL, but I really don’t have a clue what he is talking about and recommend him to watch The big court.
After a successful Saturday night, I decide to give Chatroulette one last turn on Sunday, but I only find wankers. After about 30 penises I find another man called Mario – 33, quarantined in Rome – sitting in a dark room and watching Aladdin dubbed in Italian. I feel like asking him about confinement, but he asks me who I live with and then his sister walks into his room and yells at him for a while. When she leaves he asks if my boyfriend doesn’t feel jealous that I’m on Chatroulette, which is confusing. Does he think it’s a dating site? He logs out and I close the tab, having seen enough cocks for the rest of my life. Who is on Houseparty?
All photos are courtesy of the author.