I need to start by thanking my co-worker for suggesting this story's headline.
Of course, it was the least he could do. Really.
Let me explain.
I was minding my own business, editing a movie review, when my friend Bill Forman stopped by my desk and told me he'd just been OK'd to do a cover story on Chatroulette. I laughed. "You mean that chat website overrun by exhibitionists and masturbators?"
"Uh, yeah," he said.
I'd heard about the site on one of those late-night tabloid TV shows (which, of course, I was flipping past on the way to PBS).
"I was hoping you'd, um, help with the story," he said.
"What!?" I blurted. I was sure I'd heard wrong.
"Well, I was thinking that as a parent, you might be interested in seeing what teens are being exposed to."
"Bill, you don't even like kids," I reminded him. "Why are you suddenly concerned about my parenting?"
"All right," he said, leaning in. "Here's the thing: If I go online alone, I'm not sure I can get a story. As soon as they see me, they'll click, 'Next.'"
OK, he did have a point there.
"So basically you're saying you want me to act as — what would you call it — bait?" I was incredulous at the request. (And, though I didn't admit it at the time, maybe a tad concerned that users just might click past me, too. I'm not as young as I used to be.)
"Well, that's not how I'd put it," he said, "but ..."
He pointed out I could write a story called: "Why I'll never go on Chatroulette again." Then, he threw in a promise that he'd take me along the next time he got a media invite to Ted Haggard's house.
What else could I do? I said, "Yes."
I guess I have a soft spot for perverts.
I don't like to back out of my agreements, but I'll admit that when Bill shows up at my house on Saturday night, it takes me two very tall glasses of boxed Chablis to stick to this one. I'm not a terribly accomplished drinker, so by the time he's booted up the laptop, downloaded some recording software and signed on, I am no longer giggling nervously, I'm giggling like a half-drunken coed.
Or a grown woman behaving embarrassingly like a half-drunken coed.
Fortunately, my friend Bill — my always sensitive and caring friend — can't help saying, "So, what is wrong with you tonight?"
Wrong with me? Who is asking whom to chat with deviants?
"Maybe I'm just a little scared about looking into the darkest corners of random strangers' sexual obsessions," I say (giggling, of course). But that isn't even my biggest concern.
"What if I see someone I know? Like an ex? Or worse — a long-lost relative?"
"Oooh, that could be awkward," admits Bill.
Then he laughs. "What if we see — ?"
I'm puzzled for a moment, then realize what he's thinking.
OMG. Suddenly, I'm sober.
So, Bill goes first. As new chatters appear in a window on-screen, he types as fast as he can, politely asking if they'll answer questions for a news story. Many click the "Next" button before he can finish. A few actually agree.
Then it's my turn. Evidently, to get a more realistic experience, I don't need to concern myself with professionalism. Just chat. Like at a party. Or a frat house. As I understand the mission, I am to find a human being with a webcam pointed at their face rather than their penis.
So, I start clicking. And, it's interesting. Soon I realize I'm not finding these unabashedly engorged examples of male anatomy to be nearly as disturbing or intimidating as I'd expected. In fact, they're kind of amusing. If these guys intend to impress, they've overlooked the fact that their wares are, maybe, a half-inch long on screen.
Next. Next. Next. I click and click. It's like a video game and I'm nuking erections. Here I'd been afraid of feeling victimized by predators and creeps invading my living room, and instead I'm feeling empowered. Ha.
Then suddenly, I stop. It's a face.
A slender, spikey-haired Asian man is sitting in a sleek, black-and-silver chair. I can make out rows of identical chairs behind him.
"Wow, is this guy in an airport?" I wonder aloud.
It certainly is some sort of public place — the legs of a woman and small child walk past at the edge of the frame. Good. My friend likely won't be disrobing.
"Hi," he types.
"Hi," I answer. We're off to a gripping start.
But quickly we establish that not only are we in different time zones, he is in China awaiting a flight to Japan and I'm in the U.S. (Later I'll tell chatters I'm in Sweden.)
"My English level rubblish," he says.
"Better than my Chinese," I type back.
"You can Chinese?"
"No. Sorry. I need to learn."
"Come China I can teach you Chinese."
Wow, in a few seconds I've got a tutor and a place to stay if I want to travel internationally. (No, not really.) I also discover he's a college student studying "machinery integrates" and he speaks three languages. I'm feeling like a stupid American with my not-so-incredible command of one.
"I love USA people," types my friend.
I ask him his age.
"23," he writes. "You?"
I'm considering what number to type when Bill says, "Tell him the truth."
Hmm, I hadn't considered that, but I follow orders and type a math equation that will let my friend calculate the actual number. There's a delay in our connection as I'm watching him wait for my reply, when suddenly his eyebrows shoot up. Is it surprise? Fear? Horror, maybe?
Bill is laughing so hard he might need a seatbelt to stay in his chair.
"Really??" types my buddy. The second question mark is a nice touch.
"Yes. I don't want to lie," I reply. "You are a sweet YOUNG man."
"You seem to not want so big," he adds.
Bill is laughing harder now, if that's possible.
"Is he calling me a 'cougar'?" I ask Bill.
"I don't know," he says, "but I think your friend might have his adjectives confused."
I give Bill a dirty look. But at least my new acquaintance hasn't hit the "Next" button yet.
"You are very outstanding," he types. "Beautiful kindhearted elder sister."
Though I want to taunt Bill now, pointing out that I haven't lost my touch, instead I simply write, "I am embarrassed. You are so sweet."
"I like you very very," he goes on. "Take friend with you."
Now, Bill is not only entertained, he's enamored. "Awwww ..." he says.
"Oh, please," I counter. I'm not so easily drawn in. But I do begin to wonder just a tiny bit if it's Bill who is more naïve, or me who is more jaded.
My new best friend and I chat a little more. He tells me he wants to travel to the U.S. And I tell him I'll give him a tour of Colorado. (Yeah, right.) Then a couple of other college-aged men show up behind him.
I'm about to click "Next" to let him get back to his buddies, but Bill stops me. "You have to tell him 'Thank you,'" he says.
"Really?" I'm surprised. It's evident that Bill and I have learned very different rules about talking to strangers. But again, I do as he says and type, "Thanks for talking."
Then my friend's response pops up, "Telephone: "
"Is he asking for my number?" I say, shocked.
"Give him your e-mail," says Bill.
But, this is where I draw the line. "You're crazy, Bill" I say. "Why don't I give him a fake one?"
"C'mon, he's sweet," says Bill. "And it's for the story. I want to see what will happen."
I'm trying to be a sport, but it sounds insane; surely this guy is going to send me his favorite photos of naked parts and who knows what else. Still, somehow, against my better instincts, I type my e-mail address and disconnect.
We chat a little longer, and when we're done, Bill can hardly wait to check my inbox. I'm not quite as anxious, but we open it up and there we see two fresh e-mails. They've got Chinese characters in the address lines and the subject of the first is "Me Chinese Boy."
I open it up, and the text reads simply, "hi."
"Awwww ..." says Bill.
"Whatever," I cleverly retort.
The next e-mail doesn't have a subject, and I'm pretty certain this will be the one with the crazy photographs. Hesitantly, I open it, and together Bill and I read its three words.
"I love you," it says.
I hate to admit it, but maybe sometimes Bill is right.