This popular teen app is quickly turning into Chatroulette 2.0, complete with all its issues

Key Points
  • Monkey is one of the most downloaded apps among the under-25 set, with an average age of 23 according to app analytics companies.
  • The video chat app was supposed to allow users to chat with people for 10-seconds over common interests. Its technology and tools are supposed to detect and ban users who engage in sexually explicit content.
  • However, sexual content still exists. The app co-creator says it is working to fix the problem.
Monkey co-founder Isaiah Turner
Courtesy of Monkey

You may not have heard of Monkey, but there's a good chance your teenager has.

Monkey is a video-chat app for iPhone and iPad, and connects users around the world with like-minded individuals for 10-second video chats using their Snapchat usernames.

If you make a connection, you could have a friend on social media, which can be as important as real life.

"I think people, adults especially, there's a real disconnect realizing Internet friends are just as important to teens as real world friends," Monkey co-founder Isaiah Turner said.

That may be one reason why the app has taken off among the younger set: In April, it was the top iOS app downloaded, according to analytics firm App Annie.

The app was meant to be an updated version of random video-chat site Chatroulette for today's teens, but without the sexually explicit content. Turner and his team developed artificial intelligence technology that would help detect inappropriate content, along with tools to allow users to report it.

But a brief time on the app revealed the same issues that brought down Chatroulette after a brief period of massive popularity in 2010. Among the 25 users CNBC chatted with, one was engaging in a sexually explicit act while another was showing off his genitals.

"I'm sorry that you experienced explicit content," Turner said. "To clarify, however, the machine learning and human monitoring kicks in when a user is reported. The activity is monitored and then if the inappropriate content is confirmed, the user is banned. In the version of Monkey that will launch with iOS11, the machine learning will kick in before the user is even reported. Monkey is taking this seriously and being proactive to solve it."

Topics you can chat about on Monkey

It started with a couple of teen hackers

Monkey has been downloaded almost three million times since it launched in November 2016, according to mobile app analytics company App Annie, and averaged 300,000 monthly active users during Q2 of 2017. (Monkey claims its actual usage is much higher, in the millions.)

It's particularly popular among teens and young adults. According to App Annie, Monkey was the number-one app downloaded by 13-to-24 year-olds in April, and has remained in the top 10 ever since. Currently, it's the ninth most popular app among that age group. The average user is 23, according to analytics firm Sensor Tower, and it's pretty evenly split between female and male users -- 48 to 52 percent. (Monkey says that the average age of its users is only 17.)

Monkey is the brainchild of Turner and co-founder Ben Pasternak. The two met years ago as most kids these days do: on the Internet. They finally met in person at Apple's app developer conference, WWDC, in 2015. Soon after, Pasternak was calling Turner with the idea for Monkey, a way to create a community of teens where they could meet people or find others with shared interests.

"Chatroulette wasn't a very inspiring place," said Turner. "We didn't want to create anything like that. They had a terrible community. You didn't meet people you had a lot of in common with."

Turner and Pasternak aren't just your average teens with an idea.

When he was 15, Pasternak received a round of venture capital from Binary Capital for a social app known as Flogg.

When Turner received the call for Monkey, he was working at Washington DC-personalized retail offer startup PreciseTarget, doing back end and front end development. He was 17.

Turner's love for coding started when he was 11, he claims. By 12, he was hacking his friends' TV cable boxes to remove any parental blocks.

"I started reverse-engineering how it worked," he said. "Whenever they [parents] would put parental controls, I would turn off in a few hours."

His most notorious hack to date was when he found a security flaw in Yo, the viral app that let you send a simple message -- "Yo" -- to your friends. He managed to get a push notification that said "#YoBeenHacked" to its users. As a result, Yo developer Or Arbel hired Turner. He dropped out of high school at 15 to take the opportunity.

"My parents didn't help me to drop out, but once it finally happened they supported my decision," Turner admitted. "If I hadn't done it I wouldn't have started Monkey, and Monkey is one of the best things that happened."

A 10-second Monkey chat with a 24-year-old in Pakistan (face blurred for privacy)

Trying to stop Chatroulette 2.0

To avoid the issues with its predecessor, Monkey employees – who have an average age of 18 – built AI to detect inappropriate content, Turner says. There are also tools to report people. Once reported, the AI scans the chat, according to Turner. If it detects any explicit content, the user is banned automatically.

"Our biggest focus when we built it from day one we wanted to create a community without inappropriate content," Turner said. "To do that, we had to create neural network machine learning capable of within seconds finding anything inappropriate."

In addition, users are required to submit their age before they use the app, but there's no way to verify that you are how old you say you are either. (Turner points out that no other social network can verify age either.)

But some users are slipping through the cracks. Turner says the company is working on it.

"Interestingly, it's not teenagers who tend to perpetuate explicit behavior; it's adults," he said. "Teenagers are using the space for its intent: connection to internet friends."

He also noted other apps dealt with the same issues, but were able to prevent inappropriate content as they matured.

"In the early days of Snapchat, people tended to use it to send nudes," Turner noted. "Over time it became what it is today, a place for self expression."

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