This week my colleagues Jenna Wortham, Nick Bilton and I have been utterly fascinated with, and sometimes repulsed by, a suddenly popular new Web site called Chatroulette.
The site, which gets about 20,000 users on a typical night, generates one-on-one Webcam connections between you and another randomly chosen user. The results are occasionally serendipitous, putting you face to face with an interesting person from another corner of the planet. More often though, the site is reminiscent of those old anything-goes AOL chat rooms, only with video. Let’s put it this way: Parents, keep your children far, far away. The site was well described in a New York magazine article recently and, oddly enough, was featured on “Good Morning America” on Saturday.
The lingering mystery, though, was who was behind the site. The question was answered on Saturday when Andrey Ternovskiy responded to the questions we sent to an e-mail address on Chatroulette. Mr. Ternovskiy said he was a 17-year-old high school student in Moscow.
“I was not sure whether I should tell the world who I am mainly because of the fact that I am under age. Now I think that it would be better to reveal myself,” Mr. Ternovskiy wrote.
I asked Mr. Ternovskiy about the origin of the idea for ChatRoulette, how he manages the technical challenges of running the site, whether he viewed it as a business, and about the way some people were using Chatroulette in, as he put it, “some not very nice ways.” Here are his e-mailed responses, slightly edited and condensed:
I created this project for fun. Initially, I had no business goals with it. I created this project recently. I was and still am a teenager myself, that is why I had a certain feeling of what other teenagers would want to see on the Internet. I myself enjoyed talking to friends with Skype using a microphone and webcam. But we got tired of talking to each other eventually. So I decided to create a little site for me and my friends where we could connect randomly with other people. It wasn’t so easy to create it for me, but I have been coding since 11 (thanks to my father who introduced me to the Internet early – most of my knowledge comes from it). I didn’t advertise my site or post it anywhere, but somehow, people started to talk to each other about the site. And the word started to spread. That’s how the simultaneous user count grew from 10 to 50, then from 50 to 100 and so on. Each time the user count grew, I had to rewrite my code completely, because my software and hardware couldn’t handle it all. I never thought that handling the heavy user load would be the most difficult part of my project. As the user base grew, bandwidth and hosting bills started to show bigger sums. I am glad that my relatives helped me with it by ‘investing’ some money in my idea. It wasn’t very much money, so I couldn’t just buy new servers just like that, I had to optimize my code as much as possible instead. I must say that lots of people have helped and still are helping me when I have questions about coding. I am very thankful to them. I still code everything myself, though. I’d love to share work with someone else, but I am not in the USA, and most of the interested people are located far away from me, because I live in Moscow. So I still have to do all the things myself. But I am not worried. I enjoy what I do. It is like a game for me. I discover new things and solve interesting problems. Right now Chatroulette uses seven high-end servers all located in Frankfurt, Germany. Network throughput is 7 gigabits a second. I use various technologies to minimize bandwidth consumption. But a lot of bandwidth is still consumed. Bandwidth bills show sums which shock me as a teenager, but I am not very worried. I am glad that people show attention to my project, and there were interesting offers I’ve received that probably might help my project to survive and improve. Advertising on Chatroulette is kept to a minimum, because there are a lot of sites full of advertisements, which distract you from what you want to do on those sites. I also love minimalism. That’s why I have put only four links on the bottom as advertisements. And what is interesting, is that these advertisements almost cover all expenses, just those four links on the bottom! I think it’s wonderful that I do not have to put a lot of advertisements on my site to keep it running. I am not sure why it is so. Maybe because Google AdSense (the thing I use to show the advertisements) shows links to various video chats. I don’t think this is a bad thing. I actually think it is a good thing, because only people not interested or tired of using my site click those links, to explore other services. I am aware that Chatroulette is popular in USA. It is interesting, but I have never been to the USA myself. Yet most of my site users come from it. I would love to visit the United States. I actually think that it would be best to found Chatroulette as a U.S.-based company. But this is just an idea. I have always wanted Chatroulette to be an international thing. That’s why I chose Germany for hosting, because it is in the middle between Russia and U.S.A. It is also at the center of various backbone European networks. I think this is a good place for hosting a project which connects people around the world with each other. However, I am planning to get other servers in other countries soon. With it I will add more interesting and “weird” (in a good sense) features which will make my site even more entertaining. What is currently stopping me from adding other features which have been suggested by many and have been in my mind is that I am not even sure what Chatroulette is now. Everyone finds his own way of using the site. Some think it is a game, others think it is a whole unknown world, others think it is a dating service. I think it’s cool that such a simple concept can be useful for so many people. Although some people are using the site in not very nice ways – I am really against it. Others do really unbelievable things I could never think of. They make up songs about strangers and sing to them, draw them, listen to music, broadcast them their own music. Two groups of teenagers can party together. That’s just great in my opinion. I am glad that I made this project and it is a pleasure for me to work on it.