Chatroulette; home to anonymity and perverts

Every now and then a new service appears that has a curious and somewhat inexplicably compelling quality and that you know will become huge. Twitter was rather like that; when it started there were those who dismissed it as a fad and a ridiculous way to tell people what you had for lunch. Then there were those who saw a viral phenomenon in the making.

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The latest entry into the "I'm not sure why it's cool but it's going to be big" market is something called Chatroulette – NOTE: Definitely Not Safe for Work.

Chatroulette is a simple idea: You load a Flash-based client from the service's home page and optionally allow access to your camera and audio. You then click on the "Next" button in the user interface and are connected to another user, completely at random. Depending on how the other user's client is configured you'll see what their camera is pointed at, be able to talk with them, and instant message via the chat service built in to Chatroulette.

Launched in early February by a 17-year-old programmer in Moscow, one Andrey Ternovskiy, Chatroulette is fascinating.

The service usually has 20,000 or more people online at any time of the day and reveals both a normal social side of its users as well as a remarkably (and often hilariously) prurient side.

There's a great video analyzing Chatroulette produced by Casey Neistat in which the population of users are divided into boys, girls, and perverts (the latter being people doing things that they probably wouldn't want their mother to know about).

Neistat's admittedly highly unscientific survey concluded that there are 71% boys to 15% girls to 14% perverts and 83% of the total were young and 17%, old. This appears to match my experience pretty closely.

The most common event, at least if you're a guy, is to connect to someone and they immediately hit the "Next" button. This is called "nexting".

It took a dozen connections before I connected to anyone without them nexting me and then it was two young girls who, before they nexted me, laughed and called me "grandfather."

Over the course of 30 minutes and maybe 100 tries I did talk to several people; a man in Paris on whom I practiced my execrable French, two guys in Frankfurt who said they'd visited San Diego, two teenagers also in France, apparently brother and sister, who were laughing the whole time, and a strange couple somewhere in Russia who had very little conversation and looked really serious.

While this all sounds trivial, the rapid growth and huge media interest in Chatroulette as well as the emergence of me-too services such as JayDoe (which is IM only) and Zupyo (essentially a Chatroulette clone) underlines that the service has hit a popular nerve; it has all of the viral qualities that we associated with the emergence of Twitter and is undeniably addictive.

Where Chatroulette will, and for that matter, can, go is hard to predict. A premium service? Seems unlikely. Ad supported? Possible but it would have to be low key. Integration with social networking services? Most likely.

What Chatroulette demonstrates is that there is a demand for this kind of anonymous interaction with complete strangers and whoever figures out what drives this and what the users are really looking for stands to own a very valuable marketplace. Even then, this kind of service, as long as it remains anonymous and a pervert magnet, will always stay on the fringes of polite society.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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