Jul 18, 2014 · 3 minutes

When Chatroulette first launched in late 2009, it was an instant hit. The service, which sets up video chats between two random people, combined social media and serendipity in a way that hasn't yet been matched. It also led to all sorts of fascinating experiments by people like the singer-songwriter Merton, who liked to write improvised piano ballads for the users with whom he was paired:


But like a reverse Snapchat, which began with a reputation as a sexting app before overcoming that early, shallow identity, Chatroulette quickly devolved into a place for horny men to display their members, which hardly serves anybody except the exhibitionists themselves.

That hasn't stopped people from replicating the model. Sean Parker's Airtime is the most high-profile iteration of this concept, but that app never took off despite a star-studded launch event graced by the likes of Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Fallon and $33.5 million in funding (since relaunching as OkHello it's started to pick up a little steam). Other more specialized Chatroulette clones have launched with mixed results, like the "Chatroulette of language learning" which has actually gained a little traction lately, and the "Chatroulette of college students," which is no longer live.

But this week I came across a Chatroulette clone that's one of the most fascinating new social networks I've seen in years: PuffPuffChat, or the "Chatroulette of stoners."

I know, it sounds like so many other "<popular startup> of <niche community>" sites. But in the limited time I've spent on it, I've engaged in worthwhile conversations about Charles Baudelaire, the crisis in Ukraine, and the nature of empathy -- all with complete strangers from around the world. And I wasn't even high!

When you hop on the site, the first thing you're asked is how high you are on a scale of zero (completely sober) to ten (outer space). "Nonstoners are very welcome," the site's founder, a 22-year-old named Eric, tells Ad Week. "A conversation with a person of a different state of mind can be a very enriching experience, too."

To me, that was the biggest takeaway from using the site: Unlike Twitter or Facebook where like-minded mobs come together to deal out outrage and vitriol, PuffPuffChat feels like a place for open-minded thinkers to discover different perspectives. Marijuana affects the way people think in any number of ways, but generally-speaking, it puts a person in a state to consider concepts from vantage points that the sober brain may not often visit. Sometimes these vantage points lead to hilariously false conclusions, but not always. And even when the conclusions are wrong, the mere act of altering your perspective can engender a sense of empathy.

One chat partner told me he wants to cut down on smoking weed because it made him feel "selfish." I had never thought of marijuana as a "selfish" drug before but the more I considered it, the more it made sense: Marijuana lowers inhibitions, thus prioritizing self-satisfaction, whether through food or sex. He also forwarded me Charles Baudelaire's "Poem of Hashish" to better explain his reasoning -- not bad for a random online conversation with a stranger.

Of course not all of my conversations were so edifying. Because I had a [0] next to my profile to indicate sobriety, a lot of the chats merely consisted of "Schmoke weed!" or "Why aren't you high?" And certainly not every stoner has the desire to participate in conversations about French poetry or astrophysics -- which is where my mind generally roams when in those situations.

Nevertheless, I was struck by the social network's ability to foster empathy when so many others merely foster hate. Sure, as the site grows -- Eric tells Ad Week it's hosted 100,000 conversations since launching in May -- it's possible it will devolve into dick-spam like Chatroulette did. But for now, PuffPuffPass, with its combination of serendipity, anonymity, and, most importantly, the curious dispositions of its early users, stands to become as much a staple of the marijuana-smoking experience as Pink Floyd and pizza rolls.

[image adapted from Thinkstock]