Not long ago, denizens of the web were thrown into a frenzy by Chatroulette, an innovative website that randomly paired visitors with webcams for impromptu video chats.

Hot off the HackerNews presses, meet RandTXT – Chatroulette for text messages. RandTXT allows anyone with a cell phone to anonymously send a text message to a randomly selected person and receive an anonymous reply from that person.

The instructions are simple: “(1) Send a (random, funny) text message to (650) 681-0830; (2) you’ll immediately receive a random text message from another person; (3) reply to the random text you just got; (4); get a reply to the original random text you sent.” All chat exchanges are posted to a public website that displays the originating phone’s area code but nothing else.

As with Chatroulette, the content runs the gamut from extremely obscene to serious, with almost anything in the middle. My favorite exchange so far:

Original Message: Is a hippopotamus a hippopotamus or just a really cool opotamus?
Reply Message: The latter

At first blush, this probably seems like a very minor addition to the technological landscape. After all, Twitter basically allows users to do the same thing – send short text messages. Yet there is something deep at the heart of RandTXT that is missing in Twitter – intimacy. Up until now, SMS has retained its status as a uniquely personal mode of communication. Unlike a tweet, which is broadcast to the world (or a limited number of followers), an SMS message is plain text’s version of the phone call. As a result, it brings with it a different set of contextually-rooted principles of information flow.

To give an example, one might well tweet one’s breakfast (particularly a delicious one), but one would probably not send an SMS to one’s friend solely to report this fact. While Twitter has become a forum for open contemplation and whimsical revelation, SMS is, or at least has been, a tool for more formal and personal communication. The social importance of SMS is evident in the sheer number of SMS-oriented applications that have proliferated on the iOS and Android mobile operating systems. Fast Society, Beluga, Disco, GroupMe – the list could go on. These applications offer very little that email does not. Yet they are extremely popular. For some reason, the SMS message holds a degree of appeal that other forms of communication can’t match.

If you buy my assertion that SMS is a more intimate protocol, then RandTXT becomes a lot more exciting. This is because RandTXT brazenly pulls SMS inside-out. The resulting cognitive dissonance – of using a private non-anonymous protocol (SMS) in a decidedly public and anonymous way – is thrilling.

OK – so it’s thrilling. Lots of online experiences are. But why should we care about this one? The thrill of services such as RandTXT and Chatroulette draws people into a mode of interaction they can’t find elsewhere. As a result, these services have enormous expressive potential. This is not to say that such open-ended services don’t have problems. As Jonathan Zittrain has famously pointed out, generativity can be a risky proposition. Plenty of objectionable content has surfaced on services such as RandTXT and will continue to do so. Yet insofar as Chatroulette and RandTXT users enjoy a social surplus from the new experience, and this surplus outweighs the loss caused by objectionable content, these services are worth supporting.

Which brings me to what I suppose is the point of this post – specifically (a) that opportunities for anonymity and pseudonymity on the web are shrinking, and (b) that this isn’t a good thing. While false identity allows those with impure motives to wreak havoc, it also empowers new (and old) methods of communication and human interaction. These methods of communication and interaction can advance not only our constantly-evolving discourse but also our understanding of ourselves. To the extent that privacy law exists to protect our right of expression, it should take care to make sure that the increasingly “identifying” Internet preserves a place for the delightfully obscured.