A decade ago, Chatroulette was an internet supernova that exploded in popularity before collapsing under a stream of male nudity that repelled users. Now the app, which randomly pairs strangers for video chats, gets a second chance, thanks in part to a pandemic that has limited personal contact, but also thanks to advances in artificial intelligence that help filter out the most reprehensible images.
User traffic has almost tripled since the beginning of the year, to 4 million monthly unique visitors, the most since the beginning of 2016, according to Google Analytics. Founder and chairman of the board Andrey Ternovskiy says that the platform offers a refreshing antidote to diversity and serendipity to well-known social echo chambers. On Chatroulette, strangers meet anonymously and do not have to give away their data or wade through ads.
A sign of how thoroughly Chatroulette has cleaned up its act: an embryonic corporate conference business. Bits & Pretzels, a German start-up conference, hosted a three-day event at Chatroulette in September, including a Founders Roulette session that matched participants. “No nude photos, but full of surprising conversations,”
AI, which has helped keep visitors free from unwanted nudity or masturbation, has been a good investment, says Ternovskiy. It can also offer lessons for much larger social networks that struggle to moderate content that can change falsehoods or toxicity. But Ternovskiy still dreams of a platform that creates happy human connections, and warns that technology cannot deliver it alone. “I doubt the computer will ever be 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 emigration. Ternovskiy dabbled in some failed partnerships with Sean Parker and others to try to keep Chatroulette relevant. In 2014, he launched a premium offer that connected users based on the desired demographics, which generated some revenue. He invested some of the money in cryptocurrency ventures that yielded extra profits. Chatroulette today is based in Zug, Switzerland, a crypto hub.
In 2019, Ternovskiy decided to give Chatroulette another spin, as a more respectable business, led by a professional team, with less “adult chaos.” The company was founded 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 doctorate in psychology, a head of society, a talent acquisition leader and several engineers. Then Covid-19 hit, and the traffic increased.
The new team took advantage of the growing traffic to conduct user surveys 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, along with an unmodified channel. By delimiting the two channels, Chatroulette hoped to make the filtered feed feel safer and attract users interested in human connection. The unfiltered channel is still popular, but its use is shrinking, and Ternovskiy plans to eliminate it by mid-2021.
In June, Chatroulette brought in San Francisco-based Hive, an AI specialist, for a test to detect nudity. Hive’s software also moderates content on Reddit. Leaders were quickly impressed with Hive’s accuracy, especially when they did not flag innocent users and actions. At the same time, Chatroulette tested moderation tools from Amazon Recognition and Microsoft Azure; it had previously tried Google Clouds Vision AI.
“Hive is at an accuracy level that makes it convenient to use this technology on a scale that was not previously possible,” says Done. He says Hive is “so accurate that the use of humans in the moderation loop damages the system’s performance. That is, humans introduce more errors than they remove. ”