A decade ago, Chatroulette was an internet supernova, exploding in popularity before collapsing beneath a torrent of male nudity that repelled users. Now, the app, which randomly pairs strangers for video chats, is getting a second chance, thanks in part to a pandemic that has restricted in-person social contact, but also thanks to advances in artificial intelligence that help filter the most objectionable images.
User traffic has nearly tripled since the start of the year, to 4 million monthly unique visitors, the most since early 2016, according to Google Analytics. Founder and chairman Andrey Ternovskiy says the platform offers a refreshing antidote of diversity and serendipity to familiar social echo chambers. On Chatroulette, strangers meet anonymously and don’t have to give away their data or wade through ads.
One sign of how thoroughly Chatroulette has cleaned up its act: an embryonic corporate conference business. Bits & Pretzels, a German conference about startups, hosted a three-day event on Chatroulette in September, including a Founders Roulette session that matched participants. “Without nudes though, but full of surprising conversations,” the conference heralded. Another change: Women now are 34 percent of users, up from 11 percent two years ago.
The AI that’s helped keep visitors free of unwanted nudity or masturbation has been a good investment, says Ternovskiy. It may also offer lessons for much larger social networks struggling to moderate content that can veer into falsehoods or toxicity. But Ternovskiy still dreams of a platform that creates happy human connections, and cautions that technology can’t deliver that alone. “I doubt the machine will be ever able to predict: Is this content desirable for my user base?” he says.
A 17-year-old Ternovskiy coded and created Chatroulette in November 2009 from his Moscow bedroom as a way to kill boredom. Three months later, the site attracted 1.2 million daily visitors. Then came the exodus. Ternovskiy dabbled in some ill-fated partnerships with Sean Parker and others to try to keep Chatroulette relevant. In 2014, he launched a premium offering that paired users based on desired demographics, which generated some revenue. He invested some of that money in cryptocurrency ventures that brought additional gains. Chatroulette today is based in Zug, Switzerland, a crypto hub.
In 2019, Ternovskiy decided to give Chatroulette one more spin, as a more respectable business, led by a professional team, with less “adult chaos.” The company was incorporated in Switzerland. Ternovskiy hired Andrew Done, an Australian with expertise in machine learning, as CTO. Earlier this year, Done became CEO. He was joined by a senior product researcher with a PhD in psychology, a community manager, a talent acquisition manager, and more engineers. Then Covid-19 hit, and traffic boomed.
The new team tapped the surge in traffic to conduct user research and test ways to moderate content, including AI tools from Amazon and Microsoft. It created a filtered channel, now known as Random Chat, designed to exclude nudity, alongside an Unmoderated channel. By demarcating the two channels, Chatroulette hoped to make the filtered feed feel safer and attract users interested in human connection. The unfiltered channel remains popular, but usage is shrinking, and Ternovskiy plans to eliminate it by the middle of 2021.
In June, Chatroulette brought in San Francisco-based Hive, an AI specialist, for a test on detecting nudity. Hive’s software also moderates content on Reddit. Executives were quickly impressed with Hive’s accuracy, especially in not flagging innocent users and actions. At the same time, Chatroulette tested moderation tools from Amazon Rekognition and Microsoft Azure; it had previously tried Google Cloud’s Vision AI.
“Hive is at a level of accuracy that makes it practical to use this technology at scale, which was not previously possible,” Done says. He says Hive is “so accurate that using humans in the moderation loop hurts the system’s performance. That is, humans introduce more errors than they remove.”