A decade ago Chatroulette was an internet supernova, exploding in popularity before collapsing under a torrent of male nudity that repelled users. Now, the app, which randomly matches strangers for video chats, has a second chance, in part thanks to a pandemic that has limited in-person social contact, but also thanks to the progress of artificial intelligence that help filter out the most objectionable images.
User traffic has nearly tripled since the start of the year, to 4 million unique visitors per month, the most since early 2016, according to Google Analytics. Founder and Chairman Andrey Ternovskiy said the platform offers a refreshing antidote of diversity and chance to familiar social echo chambers. Sure Chatroulette, strangers meet anonymously and do not have to divulge their data or browse advertisements.
A sign of how Chatroulette cleaned up its act: an embryonic corporate conferencing business. Bits and pretzels, a German startup conference, hosted a three-day Chatroulette event in September, including a Founders Roulette session matching attendees. “Without nudes, but full of surprising conversations,” the conference announced. Another change: women now represent 34% of users, up from 11% two years ago.
The AI that helped keep visitors away from unwanted nudity or masturbation has been a good investment, Ternovskiy says. It can also offer courses for social networks strive to moderate content that can turn lying or toxic. But Ternovskiy still dreams of a platform that creates happy human relationships and warns that technology can’t deliver this on its own. “I doubt the machine can ever predict: is this content desirable for my user base?” he says.
Ternovskiy, 17, coded and created Chatroulette in November 2009 from his bedroom in Moscow to kill boredom. Three months later, the site attracted 1.2 million daily visitors. Then came the exodus. Ternovskiy has formed unfortunate partnerships with Sean Parker and others to try and keep Chatroulette relevant. In 2014, it launched a premium offering that matched users based on desired demographics, which generated revenue. He invested some of that money in cryptocurrency companies which brought in additional earnings. Chatroulette is now based in Zug, Switzerland, a crypto hub.
In 2019, Ternovskiy decided to give Chatroulette a new twist, as a more respectable company, run by a professional team, with less “adult chaos”. The company was incorporated in Switzerland. Ternovskiy hired Andrew Done, an Australian who specializes 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 community manager, a talent acquisition manager and other engineers. then Covid-19 hit, and traffic exploded.
The new team used the increased traffic to conduct user research and test ways to moderate content, including AI tools. Amazon and Microsoft. He 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 safer and attract users interested in human connection. The unfiltered channel remains popular, but its use is declining and Ternovskiy plans to phase it out by mid-2021.
In June, Chatroulette introduced in San Francisco Hive, an AI specialist, for a nudity test. Hive’s software also moderates content on Reddit. Executives were quickly impressed with Hive’s accuracy, especially in not reporting innocent users and actions. At the same time, Chatroulette tested the moderation tools of Amazon recognition and Microsoft Azure; he had tried Google Cloud’s Vision AI before.
“Hive is at a level of precision that makes it convenient to use this technology on a large scale, which was not possible before,” says Done. He says Hive is “so precise that using humans in the moderation loop hurts system performance.” In other words, humans introduce more errors than they remove. “