The first obituary for Chatroulette, a Web site that randomly pairs strangers for video chats, came in June, when Salon proclaimed, “you can’t build an empire on dicks.” Chatroulette’s combination of randomness, anonymity, and video was irresistible to men who were dying to shed their pants—and they were driving other people away. At one point, one in ten Chatroulette encounters was not safe for work. Andrey Ternovskiy, the site’s eighteen-year-old founder, was reported to be doing battle with this relentless horde of flashers; there was even talk of his having developed penis-detection algorithms to thwart them. Which is why, last week, Gawker used the headline “R.I.P. Chatroulette”: “The defections have been fairly steady since last winter, as you can see from the rough traffic statistics from Quantcast and Compete,” two Web analytics companies. Quantcast estimates that U.S. traffic to Chatroulette is only a quarter of what it was at the height of its faddish popularity.
Ternovskiy, who keeps a low profile online and in the press, insists that his site’s demise has been greatly exaggerated. “Gawker is like an annoying fly,” he told me on Tuesday evening, in the same Moscow café where we first met, on a similarly chilly, drizzly night in March, while I was reporting on Ternovskiy and Chatroulette for The New Yorker. He had spent several months in the United States—he was wearing the tech-geek uniform of T-shirt, jeans, and a waterproof fleece jacket—and was back in Russia temporarily to file his application for an O1 “special persons” visa. Sure, users left Chatroulette with the fading hype, but Ternovskiy says his site still has five hundred thousand daily users, according to Google Analytics, down from a high of two million—the same rate of decline as estimated by Quantcast. Still, he said, “How can you be dead when your revenue has doubled?”
The answer was lazy, simple, and ingenious—in other words, pure Ternovskiy. He started redirecting pantless visitors to an adult Web site owned by Penthouse*, and their computers would forever be blocked from Chatroulette. At first, Ternovskiy and his colleagues were banning a hundred thousand users a day, but now, he says, the flasher rate is down to one in two hundred—and the adult Web site pays for the referrals, giving Ternovskiy’s company, at least for the time being, a healthy revenue stream.
Ternovskiy’s crusade against lewd behavior on Chatroulette began in early September, shortly before he had to return to Moscow,. He had frittered away the summer, riding his bike around San Francisco, travelling to New York, Las Vegas, and Washington, D.C., and alienating everyone he knew in the technology business, including potential investors. “I threw them out right away,” he said. It’s not something he regrets, he says, since he did not expect Chatroulette would grow and was afraid he’d get squeezed out of his own company. In Silicon Valley, Ternovskiy said, “They look at any new thing and say, ‘This is the new Facebook!’ or, ‘This is the new Google!’ That, or, ‘It’s dead.’ ” His only regret is his tactics. “I told a lot of people exactly what I thought of them right to their face,” which Ternovskiy called a Russian trait. “I’ve definitely become more Americanized since then.”
Instead of improving Chatroulette, Ternovskiy tinkered with some new ideas—a site using crowdsourcing “so that lots of people all build one thing” and another one called Pagedice that uses similar principles as Chatroulette to randomly display the most popular pages on the Web. He got Kirill Gura, an eighteen-year-old Russian immigrant whom Ternovskiy had befriended online, to join him in Palo Alto. When Ternovskiy realized he had a lot to get done before returning to Moscow, they worked round the clock, sleeping in shifts in the one bed in Ternovskiy’s apartment. “I had to sleep a lot to keep Kirill motivated,” Ternovskiy says, barely able to suppress a laugh.
“I’m lazy,” he told me. “But I am not worried about my future. I know what it will look like. It will be disorganized, things won’t always work. I will always radically change my direction, which will give me momentum to do something until I get bored of it. I’ll never build the perfect company, like Apple. Whatever I build will be this half-broken thing, Russian-style.”
On September 6th, Ternovskiy took off for Moscow with only his iPad, his laptop, and some underwear in a backpack, leaving important passwords and financial data necessary for his visa application back in his California apartment. As a result his stay in Russia—and the visa process—have dragged on. “I’m in exile here,” he said as we walked out into the rainy night. “But if people insist that I live in America”—something that he says he wants to do, but that his parents sometimes push too hard for—“I’ll come back and live here just to spite them.”
Andrey Ternovskiy on the Future of Chatroulette [TNY]