Chatroulette Prepares to Put On a New Face

It started off as a viral sensation and quickly blossomed into a promising investment, only to end up as a dirty joke. What will Chatroulette become next?

Visitors who dropped by the randomized video-chatting website Monday received a landing-page message: "The experiment #1 is over now. Thanks for participating. Renewed and updated version of the website will be launched today."

Just what that means is not yet clear, but it's a good bet that Chatroulette's founder, Russian teenager Andrey Ternovskiy, is experimenting with a new way to squeeze some commercial juice out of his creation. Despite a brief surge of widespread popularity, Chatroulette has been challenged by an abundance of male users who view the site as a forum for sexual exhibitionism, usually of the solo variety. That scared away both advertisers and other users unwilling to put up with the onanists, whose profusion was memorably mocked by The Daily Show, among others.

Ternovskiy has tried solving the problem in a number of ways, from temporarily banning those flagged for "inappropriate content" to threatening to report them to law enforcement authorities to punishing anyone whose video stream seemed to repel other users. It's even been reported that the site intended to introduce software that could recognize and automatically block naked men.

If Chatroulette does clear the raunchy-dudes hurdle, there's reason to think it could be a popular venue for marketers. Recently, Lionsgate Entertainment used the site as the vehicle for a clever viral-marketing campaign for the film The Last Exorcism. Of course, that campaign revolved around playing on the desire of male Chatroulette users to see women undress, but it did show that the venue has potential. More crucially, perhaps, the site appeared to enable the campaign without making any money from it. Still, an even partially sanitized Chatroulette would surely attract considerable attention from venture capitalists and advertisers alike. That is, if, in fact, the site really does appeal to audiences beyond exhibitionists and voyeurs.