On Chat Roulette. Or, Never Judge a New Medium by its Early Adopters
“Look, we understand why people would want to invest in Chatroulette: It’s hot, it’s fast-growing and it’s taken the web by storm. However, as we argued in an article earlier today, we believe that Chatroulette is unlikely to be the next Twitter — its primary functions are novelty and shock factor, not utility. Unless Mr. Ternovskiy has a plan to turn the site into a legitimate business (with the male genitalia completely removed), we have a tough time seeing Chatroulette as a smart investment.”
I agree with Ben. Unless there’s something about the underlying technology that powers ChatRoulette that could be worthwhile to a future buyer or new products, investing in this company is like investing in a Chia pet manufacturer.
To expound… Students of media history will note that early usage and early adopters of a media are often unrelated to its mass success. In fact, I’ll suggest that the uniting characteristic of all new media it is the way the disenfranchised and under-represented enthusiastically embrace them. And Chat Roulette checks that box.
Adopting a new medium is a lot of work (at least for most of us.) You have to learn how to best utilize the new medium. You cannot solely rely on the new medium, as almost no one else has adopted it yet. Really, the earliest adopters of a new medium are doing so for one of two reasons:
- They’re fetishists, who adopt for the sake of the new medium. See: media professionals, technologists, the entire Silicon Valley, myself, etc. These people sign up simply to experience the new medium. They beg for Brizzly invites not because they can’t adequately communicate with others, but because they want to see how Brizzly integrates with X, handles this UX challenge, etc. These people are (usually) flighty. You can’t really build a foundation on them because they’re always onto the next thing.
- They’re Disenfranchised, who adopt to give themselves voices. These people adopt out of communication necessity. They’re underrepresented, ignored or unapproved by the mass media community. They adopt a media because they have to, if they want to express or consume unabated. These people are great for building new media upon because they usually can’t go anywhere else.
- Look to Japan’s queer community and mobile internet. The community was virtually unacknowledged (pun not intended) by Japanese culture and they created and supported the market for innovation because as a community they moved into the mobile space. The culture grew, developed, and thrived thanks to their own channel.
- Video on demand has been a profitable industry for the past quarter century partially thanks to pornography. New media and porn’s relationship has been well documented (VHS, web video, etc). Essentially, public theaters limit your market to the few who are willing to risk social isolation by walking into them. Bring the video anonymously home and your market explodes, as does the medium. (man, these inadvertent puns are killing me.)
- But my favorite example is that of “telegraph fiction.” In the latter half of the 19th century, pulp romance novels emerged that featured telegraph operators. In plots that predate You’ve Got Mail by more than a century, men and women meet and flirt anonymously
onlineonwire in heated Morse Code. Katherine Stubbs wrote a great piece on the matter, showing how these relationships went beyond social acceptability for the day and age. In many tales she finds instances of women tapping out flirtatious messages from their bed. Without the mediated nature of these exchanges, such behavior was nearly criminal in the 1870s.
There’s more than this, but I don’t have time or access to a library from here.
Granted, there is one big exception to this, and that’s the military. If the military invests in your new media tech, they’ll support you all the way to the masses. See Bell Labs, etc.
But back to Chat Roulette.
Judging Chat Roulette solely by its early adopters and usage is a big mistake. Here we have a group of people who are using the new medium because they way they *ahem* “express” themselves is not allowed by society. The question isn’t whether a utility exists now, it’s whether early adopters can support the medium until mass utility is found. Or at least the next audience.
Ben Parr is right to zero in on this, but I think he undervalues the resonance that Chat Roulette has generated thus far. Clearly, there’s a segment who values this, or at least is curious about it. If you can monetize this “novelty and shock factor” until your mass relevance is ready, they’re gold. They’re much further ahead than most new communication companies.
Consider Second Life: it’s still around and made $100 million last year! Does it have utility? Almost certainly not! But what it does has is an audience who needs (and pays) for the ability to express themselves in ways society will not allow. If you’ve been to Second Life recently you’ll know what I’m talking about…
I’m not saying Second Life is a success. What I’m saying is that Second Life has used a niche audience to support itself until it finds it’s mass application.
Consider Twitter: here’s a case where reasons 1 & 2 listed above perfectly aligned. The tech-minded of San Francisco’s South Park wanted a way to communicate prior to the geeking of our culture (I’m simplifying this, I know, but run with it…) Twitter’s early, niche, web-addict audience supported a company until it resonated with the mass. Now, thanks to huge adoption of mobile, the rise of SMS, smart phones, and always-on internet, Twitter became a utility. 3 years ago, Twitter was a quirky, absurd (only 140 characters? why not just send an email?) medium with no real relevance. Today it embodies the zeitgeist. Plus, look at the way it’s getting a global kick from countries whose communities embrace it for reason #2, like Iran and China.
Personally, I’d never invest in Chat Roulette. But is it really that far off from Justin.tv and Ustream, who’s primary usage is novelty and piracy? These companies are kept afloat by their “novelty and shock” audiences until the day we can all stream web video to and from our mobiles. When that happens, it’s easy to see amateur and professional content emerge on Chat Roulette like networks. And when that happens: money follows.