Allanjit Singh, digital strategist of 360° Digital Influence at Ogilvy PR Worldwide Singapore, explains five things we need to know about the new pyscho-social online phenomenon built by a 17-year-old Russian student.
1. Sometimes bored teenagers create more than just graffiti.
If you've recently had a conversation with a teenager, you probably would have heard of Chatroulette (http://chatroulette.com/), the psycho-social phenomenon sweeping across dorm rooms all over the world. The site, built by 17-year-old Russian student Andrey Ternovskiy in late 2009, gets about 30,000 users on a typical night and generates one-on-one webcam connections between you and another randomly chosen user. It’s reminiscent of the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) of yesteryear but with video.
The default interaction on Chatroulette is roughly three seconds long: assessment, micro-interaction, click 'Next'. Whether driven by unbridled curiosity or pure boredom, users seem contented to sit back and “channel-surf” through amateur musicians, minute-sketch-artists, exhibitionists, or whatever else is out there until someone worthy of decent interaction catches their eye. To date, more than 30 million unique users have visited the site and celebrities such as Katy Perry, Ben Folds and Kate Moss have reportedly been sighted on it.
2. So what if you don’t have a proper revenue model?
The web is full of great ideas that are not groomed by venture capitalists into economic success stories. The founders of YouTube and Facebook didn’t sit around building business plans, they simply unleashed their ideas on the general public. Just like how the Scotch brand became synonymous with adhesive tape, Facebook has done the same with social networking.
There is no term to describe Chatroulette but not having a label could be a good thing. The service uses seven high-end servers with a network throughput of seven gigabits a second and almost all of the expenses are paid for by four links on the bottom that serve as advertisements. The focus right now is on keeping the site and its features fresh, and working out what the right mix of offerings are. Once Ternovskiy figures out the right formula that will keep people coming back for more, businesses and advertisers will work around it.
3. No functionality? No problem.
The 'Field of Dreams' vision often gets quoted in relation to the web experience - if you build something, they will come. Chatroulette is not a response to consumer demand. Instead, it is based on Ternovskiy’s gut feel of what interesting and weird (in a good sense) features can entertain participants. Entertainment is the key. Not everyone wants to be bombarded by brand messages all day long, no matter how subtle; sometimes it’s just about the fun.
Without describing exactly how to use the site, many users have found their own special way of navigating this social wilderness. Some treat it like a game, some enjoy the idea of being voyeurs into strangers’ bedrooms and yet there are others who think it is a dating service.
4. Don’t worry about control and structure.
Sometimes, the luck of the draw gets you a parade of body parts in your chat window but you could also potentially be serenaded, sketched or read poetry to by strangers. Once you dive in, there’s no way to manage the experience – you can’t filter users, search for friends, or backtrack and reconnect with someone you chatted with an hour ago. There’s only the perpetual forward motion of 'next.' This is what companies dealing with issues of control and privacy would deem as pure chaos, which also explains why Chatroulette has thrived on college campuses everywhere.
However, with no apparent age restrictions or censorship, there’s always the danger of possible exploitation looming close in all forms. But this state of disarray could hold some exciting potential for companies that live on the edge of creativity. It’s almost a marketer’s nightmare – a flippant, disparate, unmotivated and impartial audience of cynics and possible miscreants.
5. Not the next big thing yet.
If you dabble in social media for your organization or agency, don’t think of this as the next big thing. Chatroulette would be a great add-on to a strategy that has the breadth to handle leftfield ideas and audiences. Marketers who dabble with it without understanding it may come across as jumping onto a bandwagon that does not suit the brand’s culture.
The bigger question is how we perpetuate the buzz generated by these fleeting interactions we have with people across the globe. Although Chatroulette feels radically new, it’s built entirely out of recycled parts - it's a potent combination of programs we’ve all been familiar with for years. I found myself fantasizing about a sober version of Chatroulette, possibly powered by Google’s massive server farms, which would allow users to set filters of their choice, such as age and location. Or maybe someone will just build another site for that. Enjoy Chatroulette for the muddled mess it is now.
This article is republished with express permission of Media Asia which originally published it on April 15, 2010.