1. You must be 16 or older.
2. Please stay clothed.
3. Please click “Report” if you don’t like what you see.
The game: Chatroulette.
This latest (at least as of this week) addition to the social networking world is a website that pairs random strangers for webcam-based conversations around the country or around the world. Users can communicate with each other via text, video and or audio, and the conversations last until they decide to move on to someone else who looks interesting on the site.
There is a definite roulette-like aspect to using Chatroulette, because anyone who signs on may be “nexted” which means he or she is just the next one up when another user leaves one chat and clicks “next” to go to whoever’s profile shows up right after that one.
From zero to 60
I first came in contact with Chatroulette (www.chatroulette.com) a couple weeks ago while watching ABC News do a piece on it. Like other new Web 2.0 innovations, it has caught the media’s attention. But seldom do such inventions leap in marketing popularity from zero to 60 in four months time. That is exactly what Chatroulette has done, however.
The service was launched last November by a 17-year-old Russian high school student in Moscow named Andrey Temovskiy. You read that right: 17. Within a week there were about 500 users; a month later there were 50,000; this month there are 1.5 million around the world, with about a third of them in the U.S. alone.
The thought behind the service wasn’t rocket science. Ternovskiy says he developed the idea after having video chats with friends over the internet video phone service, Skype (www.skype.com).
An image sticks
And the name? It came from the 1978 Robert DiNiro and Chris Walken film, The Deer Hunter. Remember the scene when DiNiro, Walken, and John Savage are taken prisoner in Vietnam and forced by their captors to play Russian roulette? That image suck in Ternovskiy’s mind and became the name for his new service.
Techically, the site uses Adobe Flash and webcams on users’ computers to enable video exchange. Flash can handle peer-to-peer communication by using RTMFP that lets nearly all audio and video streams to move directly between individual computers of users without using server bandwidth.
We’ve all heard stories about the guy who produces the next big thing right out of his bedroom, and this is one of those stories. This young Russian still works out of the bedroom he grew up in, and is assisted by four programmers who work out of remote locations and who probably aren’t much older than him.
Working from home
One of the great things about the Internet is that many new concepts begin with very limited funds. Again, Chatroulette is one of those stories. Ternovskiy funded his site with a $10,000 loan from Mom and Dad, which he has since paid back. He makes money from advertising links set up with an online dating site called True, and who know where all this will go.
I dialed up the site last night and was first struck by the fact there is no traditional home page, but just a page with a short welcome, the three above rules, and a quick set of instructions. Along the top are three tabs labeled “New game,” “Report,” and Pause.” On the left side are two windows labeled “Partner,” and “You.” The idea is extremely simple: you must first engage your webcam, then you follow a couple quick instructions, click “New Game,” and you go online and are in line to be “nexted” by a new chat partner who could be living across the street or around the world.
If things get dicey, you can click “Report,” which supposedly sends up a red flag to
programmers. Apparently, after three such flags are hoisted for the same “chat partner,” that user is banned for 10 minutes, although verification for that claim is hard to find. The Chatroulette homepage carries no information about the site at all beyond the information I just listed.
Take it slow
Like all internet sites, this one should be used with caution, and self-disclosure should be kept to a minimum because — fantasies aside — you have absolutely no idea if the face you are talking to belongs to a safe or truthful person.
One of the lures of Internet chatrooms and dating sites is that they can offer instant relationships, maybe with the person of your dreams. The reality is that relationships aren’t that easy, and it takes time to get to know each other and see how genuine each of you really is.
Given the high stakes of self-disclosure, it’s no time to gamble away your privacy in the land of the virtual unknown.
Many of us remember the line from the scene in the 1996 film, Jerry Maguire, where the sports agent played by Tom Cruise reacts to a team owner’s request to have Maguire’s client, Ron Tidwell, play for his team.
“Show me the money!” is Maguire’s loud and oft-repeated response.
The same mantra may be coming soon for venture capitalists providing resources for the flashy and mercurial world of online social networks. Several of these sites — most notably Facebook and Twitter — are generating tons of interest among users, but the question remains: Where is the money they are expected to rake in?
In our current era (read month because things are changing so fast), even the social media continue to change and evolve. In the process, a shakeout may be looming: a survival of the fittest scenario.
For example, MySpace was founded seven years ago — a virtual eternity in the world of Web 2.0 media. By 2006, it had become the most popular social networking site in the United States, only to be overtaken in 2008 by Facebook, which had only been in business since 2004.
Today (and I mean that literally), MySpace has lost even more ground as a social networking site, and last summer had to lay off almost a third of its staff, according to Time Magazine.
A drop in popularity
Stephanie Cano, one of my bright college students who represents the age group in the epicenter of the social networking movement, noted recently that MySpace has turned “from trendy to empty.”
More specifically, she wrote in the campus newspaper, The Clause: “It was just five years ago when MySpace was the place for friends and networking. Now it has become as isolated as the Cougar Walk during the weekend. There is an undeniable feeling of abandonment and reminiscence upon logging into the once hottest place on the Web.”
Cano echoes feelings of her peers that MySpace has been deluged and overtaken by too many ads and “annoying applications” that have detracted greatly from its original lure as a site featuring music, links, and pictures, posted by indivdiual users.
Too much spam
Andrew Shortall, a senior journalism major from Los Angeles, said spam is way too prevalent on MySpace, and that part of that spam is made up of fake profiles that lure young people into conversations only to have them discover they are visiting a porn site or some other unexpected sales pitch.
“I really think MySpace has too much junk on it, and is probably used more by high schoolers. I think Facebook is seen more as a college- and professional-level social networking site,” he said.
Laura Jane Kenny, another college senior from Southern California, says MySpace is still a better site for indivdiuals to upload music because Facebook is set up for short-burst messages.
Users aren’t enough
It is ironic that MySpace, which boasts 100 million unique visitors now is experiencing hard times. But the reality is that those kinds of numbers don’t automatically translate into revenue for a site that is finding it tough to interest users in ads, which those same users find annoying anyway.
Bryant Urstadt, writing a technology piece for ABC News, noted in 2008 that most social networking sites are “giving their product away, expecting that the communities built around it will generate ad revenues. It’s a model that stirs memories of the first Internet bubble: build the user base and hope the money comes, from an IPO, a buyout, or ads.”
In 2007, Microsoft purchased a 1.6 percent stake in Facebook for $240 million and valued the company at $15 billion, a value debated by many, Urstadt wrote, inasmuch as Facebook was probably going to lose $150 million that year.
The networking sites have been setting their ad rates low, but even those haven’t been enough to attract media buyers and big advertisers to social networks. One ad agency executive, Anthony Acquisti, told Urstadt, “A lot of advertisers are very hesitant to get into MySpace. We’ve even flat-out told intereste brands, ‘You don’t want to be there.’”
The APC’s of trouble
Why? Three main problems, not just with MySpace but with other social network sites like Facebook: Attention, Privacy, and Content.
Audience members of sites like Twitter and Facebook are jumpy and not very engaged with the content. They talk, but they don’t listen that much. And, even more problematic, they aren’t paying attention to the ads — and there are a lot of them on MySpace. As Andrew Shortall notes, they come at you in irritating, flashing style, and tend to turn users off.
In terms of content, Facebook and Twitter users don’t come in search of content and aren’t too interested in it. They go to Google and other search engines for that, which is why those sites — especially Google — are making more money. If you engage with the content, you will probably notice the ads, especially if you have to sit through a commercial before you can see the content. Happens all the time on sites like YouTube.
The privacy issue concerns the fact that social networking sites don’t
have the exposure that advertisers would like. There may be tens of millions of unique visitors, but they aren’t all seeing the same thing on a Facebook site, for example. Not by the longest shot. The reason, of course, is that individual users can put filters on their sites, limiting exposure to just their designated friends.
Targeting may help
Many are banking on the concept that better targeting of advertising might hold the answer for generating revenue on social networking sites. As Urstadt notes, “Startups that help advertisers and marketers better target the users of social networking sites are fashionable investments for venture capitalists. Such startups hope to selladvertisers detailed information about individual social networkers.”
Some say the targeting answer lies in getting “between” friends on the social network sites.
Advertising analyst Seth Goldstein puts it this way: You come to a social network because you are interested in your friends; ergo, the thinking goes, in order to get your attention, advertisers need to let you know what your friends are buying or thinking about buying, or they must somehow get you to send each other ads.
If these challenges can be met and conquered by advertisers, social network sites will continue to mushroom. If not, we could be looking at a new dot.com bubble bursting.
There’s no place like San Francisco’s Moscone Convention Center when Apple puts on a Mac World show. I’ve visited a couple of them, and they come equipped with all the bells and whistles of a Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey Circus.
In place of the caravan of wild animal haulers outside, however, you have a fleet of satellite news vans from networks and local stations containing local and national journalists, all of whom want
to be there in case Steve Jobs and Co. unveil something new.
That happened a year or so ago when the latest iteration of the iPhone was unveiled, and it happened just six weeks ago when Jobs took to the stage to personally say the computer world would never be the same again, thanks to Apple’s new iPad.
Hot off the pixels
On the day of that pronouncement, actually within a few minutes of it, AOL and YouTube already had videos of Jobs’ announcement and I was showing them to my students at Azusa Pacific University.
It wasn’t Moses coming down from the mountain with the 10 Commandments but, in the tech world, it was close.
The odd thing is that most of my students, ranging in age from 19-23, were nonplussed by the whole thing in general, and the iPad in particular. Despite its low price (about $500), notebook size, and touchpad screen, the reaction of “ho-hum” sums up my students’ response.
Among their questions: Why the need for a touchpad that wipes out part of your screen? What – no lid for this laptop? How fragile does that make it? And will the screen really be that visible outdoors as the promos say, backlit or not? And, finally, haven’t I seen this thing before? Isn’t this just a bigger iphone, without the ability to text or make phone calls? How great can that be?
All of which tells me that it’s hard to please young people these days … no scoop there .. and that this is a generation that is so used to innovation, that innovation itself is in danger of becoming obsolete.
Keep in mind that my sample of 20-somethings is a small one, but they are young Californians and these left-coast types are often higher risk-takers – when it comes to hi-tech products – than the rest of the country. If a product can’t appeal to the whimsical folks from the Terminator’s state, does it have a chance elsewhere?
Touchpads seem to work okay on the iPhone and Verizon’s Droid, but if they are so great, why does Verizon make a more expensive version with an optional slide out keyboard?
A marketing headache
It must be tough for the Apples, the HPs and the Dells of the tech world to decide which kind of product is going to have those killer applications these days. As is always the case, technology runs ahead of marketing. Products are invented, but does anybody really want them? Remember the failed experiments with the videophone in the 1980s and 1990s?
What about Kindle?
Questions also still dog the new e-books like Kindle, marketed by Amazon.com and sold for $259, and the Nook, marketed by Barnes & Noble and priced about the same. The web site cnet news reported early success of Kindle sales in 2008, but the reading public hasn’t exactly been storming Best Buy or Walmart for the electronic readers recently. And Apple has tossed another unknown into how popular either e-reader will be by including a book download feature in its iPhone and coming iPad.
It would be easier to prognosticate about Kindle sales if Amazon were providing sales figures which they don’t seem to be doing, choosing to say instead that “millions of people now own Kindles.” The high-tech web site Gizmodo interprets that as meaning “Amazon Kindle Sales Are Officially Not Embarrassing.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the ebook’s popularity.
Carl Franzen wrote on AOL News a few days ago that he also believes the consumer technology market “is notoriously unpredictable.” Franzen added, however, that this fact doesn’t deter hi-tech higher-ups from making what they consider groundbreaking announcements. In his example, however, it is John Herlihy, the European head of Google.
Herlihy’s pronouncement? That desktop computers will be irrelevant within three years’ time, yielding the field not just to laptops, but mainly
to the new crop of iPhones, Droids, and other hand-held communication wonders yet to come.
As a proof-point for his assertion, he offers up Japan and that country’s overwhelming use of mobile phones, rather than computers, to access the Web.
Herlihy echoed what Franzen calls “a company-wide apprehension” that the next product or service to shake up the high-tech world “would emerge seemingly out of nowhere, as Google itself did over a decade ago.”
The Web site Silicon Republic quoted Herlihy as saying, “The digital world is fundamentally different from the traditional business world. Things happen much faster. Web sites spring up from nowhere.”
Remember where Facebook came from? How about YouTube? From industry giants? Try a college student at Harvard and a trio of others from Stanford.
Brave new world
I used to worry about advising young people to enter the media world as a career. Not any more. I tell them now that if they want to be a pioneer – just as my dad was in the television world of the early 1950s – the media is the place for them. Creativity knows absolutely no bounds, and if Mark Zuckerberg – now all of 25 – could invent Facebook just a few years ago, why not them?
Sometimes the scary world of the virtual unknown can be a very alluring place.
Most cities like to build their image around something unique to them.
Memphis, for example, calls itself the birthplace of the blues and the home of rock ‘n roll (sorry Cleveland, it started here).
Nashville lays claim to country music capital of the world.
Las Vegas is … well, that’s too obvious.
And Boston? Boston is different because Boston boasts education. It is the only city with more college campuses than McDonald’s franchises.
I taught at two of these schools and lived a stone’s throw from a third, Tufts University, which has a great vet school and an undegraduate program rated 28th in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.
That’s why I was somewhat surprised by recent stories about this elite school taking college applications over YouTube. Seriously? As Las Vegas would say, you bet.
Another video features Rachel Goldstein, wearing what looks like a Burger King crown and standing in a tree while playing her guitar and singing a song she wrote.
In a third video, Alex McCue goes acapella from his living room, putting his request to accept him in an original Michael Buble-style song.
These three are joined by many others on the first YouTube screen alone (under the category of “Tufts Video Essays”). Most of the video essays run between 60-90 seconds.
Last week, in this space, we looked at how students are discovering more about potential colleges via the social media. But the reverse of that is also true, as Tufts is showing America: colleges can find out more about prospective students over the same venue.
The Tufts experiment is interesting in more than one way, because this could also turn out to be an ingenous way for colleges and universities to publicize themselves even more on the social media.
A Lot of Takers
The option has become popular according to published reports by Lee Coffin, director of undergraduate admissions at Tufts. Thus far, some 1,000 applicants (out of 15,000) have posted YouTube videos as part of their applications to the school.
Under the school’s “creating something” option, applicants have the option of either creating something on paper or creating a viral video of their uniqueness. The video basically lets the kids have a chat with the admissions officer via video and, in effect, says “This is who I am.”
At least it’s who I am in the virtual world, which is becoming more real with every passing day.