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Chatroulette Gives Rise to a Genre

Remember Chatroulette, the Web site that pairs strangers for anonymous video chats? It wasall the rage among the Web’s tastemakers early this year.

Emma Innocenti | Getty Images

Then the creeps took over, and the technorati moved on.

But there was something enduring about Chatroulette’s mash-up of serendipity and human connections. Now a number of entrepreneurs and Web tinkerers are hoping to spin that concept into business opportunities — while keeping the creep factor to a minimum.

One of them is Matt Hunter, a 27-year-old software developer in San Francisco who created TextSlide. It matches random users and lets them chat via texting.

To protect privacy, the service displays only users’ screen names as well as their area codes, which Mr. Hunter hopes can serve as an icebreaker. When they tire of one another or the conversation veers off topic, they can request a new partner.

“I learned a lot from watching that site,” Mr. Hunter said of Chatroulette. “There is a desire to connect with someone new in a short-form way, but if you don’t give people something to talk about, it quickly devolves into questions about age, sex and location.”

To counter that, Mr. Hunter plans to allow users to select topics of interest as a way to find like-minded conversation partners. For now the service is still in test mode, and there is a waiting list to sign up.

Another start-up, vChatter, is trying to continue the fun of face-to-face video chats with strangers, but ideally in a more family-friendly way.

“It was hard not to go, ‘Wow, people really want to do this or else they would never put up with so many naked guys,’ ” said Will Bunker, one of the founders of the company.

VChatter requires that users sign in using their Facebook identity, which discourages bad behavior. But the only details visible to talk partners are one’s first name and location. Using Facebook logins has another advantage: the company can skim user profiles and match people with similar interests.

“As we evolved, we realized it makes it more interesting for people,” Mr. Bunker said. “It’s still unknown, but not totally random.”

The company says it has around 2.5 million users and had half a million visitors in the last month. Mr. Bunker said vChatter had raised a quarter of a million dollars from early investors and planned to announce a round of venture capital financing in a few months. He hopes to support the service with advertising.

Chatfé, a start-up based in New York, is aiming to generate longer and more meaningful interactions over the phone. The service connects users interested in the same topic, like backpacking around India or training for a marathon, for phone conversations.

“It’s the same idea as if you were in a cafe and met up with someone reading a similar book and started talking to them,” said Paul Orlando, the company’s founder. “When you speak to someone, you have to invest more in that conversation.”

After confirming their phone number with the service, users can designate what subjects they want to talk about and pick a time to chat. The service finds an appropriate match and calls the two users during that window. For now it works over landlines and mobile phones, but eventually, Mr. Orlando said, Chatfé will add a browser-based chat tool as well.

Chatroulette has given rise to several other playful offshoots. Facelette matches people using Apple’s video-calling feature FaceTime, while Feedback Roulette offers a way for people to get anonymous commentary on the design of their Web sites.

It is not clear whether any of these services will be able to sustain the attention of users beyond the initial novelty stage. After all, Web denizens can be fickle, and interest in social networking fads can fade in a flash. But the early and stratospheric popularity of Chatroulette could indicate that the idea has staying power.

“Very often, a start-up that gets as much attention as Chatroulette is either ahead of its time or gets overwhelmed with the actual maintenance of the site,” said Melanie Turek, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan, a research firm. “Then there’s an opportunity for version 2.0 to tweak the concept just enough, and enter the market with a better understanding of what people want and how to run that type of business.”

Andrey Ternovskiy, the 18-year-old creator of Chatroulette, said he did not see the new crop of services as competition.

“It is always cool for me to see other kinds of ‘roulette’ sites out there,” he said. “If people like it, then why not? For a long time, people did not feel comfortable to broadcast their emotions and actual selves on the Web, and this offers that.”

Mr. Ternovskiy said he had spent the last several months working furiously to clean up the site in an effort to recapture the original wildfire interest in it. He has hired a team of moderators to cycle through users and flag the ones who are disrobing or otherwise misbehaving. Those users find themselves redirected to Hustler’s Web site, which pays Chatroulette for the referrals. And the home page of Chatroulette now bears this request: “Please stay fully clothed.”

Chatroulette has managed to hold on to an audience of 500,000 unique users a day, Mr. Ternovskiy said, though that is far below its peak of two million earlier this year.

Shervin Pishevar, the founder of a mobile games publisher called SGN and an adviser and mentor to Mr. Ternovskiy, said the interest in the Chatroulette idea went beyond novelty.

“Most of us have connected with the vast majority of our old friends, colleagues and acquaintances by now,” he said, thanks to social networks like Facebook. “The venues to meet people randomly are increasingly limited.”

Chatroulette, Mr. Pishevar said, touched on the raw desire of Web users to carve out a new way to make that happen. The model, he said, is one that will continue to morph and spread.

“Chatroulette is just one form factor,” he said. “There will be a dawn of new services that tap into randomness and serendipity as their model.”

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