Russian website Chatroulette, founded by Andrey Ternovskiy, is perhaps most well known as a place to watch men expose their genitals.
But that hasn’t stopped up to a million people a day from visiting the site. And it has been featured on both the Daily Show and South Park.
And wow has Ternovskiy been courted by Silicon Valley and other investors. SGN founder Shervin Pishevar helped bring him to Palo Alto and get set up in an apartment. In May the New Yorker talked about how Russia’s DST was having him followed when he first visited the U.S. And we’ve heard rumors of angel investors and venture capitalists circling Ternovskiy like a hawk.
The problem is the site is quickly losing its appeal as more and more people are turned off by the sheer number of people exposing themselves or worse on the site. The brand is becoming permanently associated (with help from those Daily Show and South Park features) with the more disgusting parts of humanity.
Can Chatroulette become something more? Look for feature changes soon that will try to send all those penises to the background. The service may add software that can quickly scan video to determine if a penis is being shown. And users that are consistently quickly skipped over (presumably because they are exposing themselves or otherwise being disgusting) can be flagged as well. With those and other changes Chatroulette may be able to put people who actually want to talk to each other in touch much more often.
And that’s where real growth might happen. “There just isn’t anywhere on the Internet for you to meet new people anymore,” says one investor that wants in on Chatroulette. “The potential for online dating, which is largely what pushed early Facebook growth, is unlimited.”
But Ternovskiy’s caution may doom the site. He has rebuffed most offers for help, say our sources, and investors and advisors are starting to give up. “If he doesn’t make a dramatic move soon to clean up the service, the brand will be permanently tarnished,” says another interested investor.
One person that Ternovskiy does seem to trust is Napster founder Shawn Fanning, who is currently hard at work on his most recent startup Path. Fanning is an advisor to Chatroulette, he confirms, and has been working closely with Ternovskiy for the last month or so. “I’m fascinated by Chatroulette and Andrey,” he told me yesterday, “and I want to help him any way I can.” Fanning stresses that the advisory role is informal, uncompensated and that he works with a number of other entrepreneurs as well.
It isn’t clear yet what happens next for Chatroulette. Ternovskiy will either push on independently and try to grow and clean up the site on his own, or he’ll embrace the Silicon Valley ecosystem and get other people and investors involved.
It’s clear that people are fascinated by the concept of talking to strangers from the relative safety of their computer screens, and Chatroulette satisfies some basic human need to connect to others. But sadly it also satisfies the basic human need of some people to show the world their penis. And that parade of penises is driving everyone else away. Chatroulette needs to decide what it wants to be when it grows up, and it needs to decide soon. Otherwise it will be nothing more than the punchline of a joke, and even that will grow old quickly.