Is Chatroulette About to Go PG-13?
CNBC.com News Editor
This story has been updated. See update below.
It sounds like Chatroulette, the site that lets users video chat with random strangers but quickly became known for its X-rated antics, is about to hit the “next” button.
Chatroulette went offline on Monday, leaving only a cryptic message on its home page: “The experiment #1 is over now. Thanks for participating. Renewed and updated version of the website will be launched today." (“Today” was later changed to “shortly” after two days came and went with nary a mention of the next “experiment.”)
There was some speculation around the Internet that the site, founded by 17-year old Russian high-school student Andrey Ternovskiy, may finally be cleaning up its act, installing nudity-detecting softwareor some technology that would help reduce the amount of porn on the site.
Ternovskiy created the site because he and his friends enjoyed videochatting via Skype but soon grew sick of just chatting with each other. What started as a way to spice up social networking got a little spicier than expected: Roughly 1 in 8 “spins” resulted in something R-rated, according to a study by web-research firm RJMetrics.
The original site was “kind of a phase 1, launched for the purposes of gathering data and seeing how people are going to respond to businesses like these — and come up with something even bigger and better,” said Robert J. Moore, CEO of RJMetrics.
Wait, that doesn’t sound like the musings of a 17-year old kid running a popular Web site out of his bedroom in his parents’ house.
“I think the idea that he’s a Russian kid in his parents’ house is a six-month old concept,” Moore said. “He ‘s being steered by a panel of investors and advisers in Silicon Valley — there’s a real marketing and technology machine behind him at this point,” Moore said.
The buzz is that venture capitalist Fred Wilson was responsible for bringing Ternovskiy to the U.S. and that he was also being advised by Napster founder Shawn Fanning. But there is speculation that Fanning and others have parted ways with Ternovskiy.
The site, launched last November, had 300 users that month, which rocketed to over 1.7 million by March.
Its popularity and name recognition might make it an attractive takeover target but Moore said the site’s nudity problem presents a big issue.
“You’d be hard-pressed to see it as a slam-dunk acquisition,” he said. Any company that bought it would have to work hard to overcome that stigma.
Not to mention, he said, the site wasn’t generating revenue — and the technology isn’t unique, as evidenced by the dozens of Chatroulette knockoffs that have popped up in recent months.
Chatroulette gave little in the way of hints that it was preparing such a big change. Over the summer, as Ternovskiy spent time in the U.S. with social-networking gurus and venture capitalists, the site experimented with local channels, to connect with people closer to you, and subject-based channels.
Though, not surprisingly, the most popular channels included sex, girls, gay teen and — wait for it — MILFs.
The other interesting thing that happened right before the site went online, was a brilliant guerilla marketing campaign for the Lions Gate film “The Last Exorcism,”which opens on Friday.
A cute girl appeared to be ready to take her top off but just as she started undoing the buttons, her eyes rolled back in her head and turned red, her face began to crack and she turned into a she-demon, lunging at the camera, scaring the wits out of teenage boys who were on the other side expecting to see a naked girl. (Watch the video here.)
So, is Chatroulette 2.0 going to be about reducing the amount of porn? Or is it going to be a marketing-focused service, based on the success of she-demon campaign? Maybe it’s a combination of both.
“I think any revamped version is going to have to have some kind of monetization component or business model,” Moore said.
The site seems to have mastered the art of viral marketing and has already managed to lure a few advertiserskeen on the young male demographic, including French Connection, Burger King and Travelocity, but for sure the site has a few hurdles ahead.
One thing everyone seems to agree on: They better hit the “next” button soon, before they lose their audience.
UPDATE: After this story was published, we spoke with venture capitalist Fred Wilson. He confirmed that he helped bring Ternovskiy to the U.S., writing a letter to the State Department to help Ternovskiy get his visa and putting him up in a hotel in New York for the first few weeks he was here. "If that is 'instrumental,' then so be it," Wilson said, adding that he hasn't spoken with Ternovskiy since the day after he arrived in the U.S.
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