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Feb. 16 2010 - 5:53 pm | 1,605 views | 1 recommendation | 7 comments

Burned by Buzz and Facebook, we’re falling in love with anonymity all over again

Chat Roulette and Urban Daddy's Failin.gs

Chat Roulette and Urban Daddy's Failin.gs

Our love affairs with Google and Facebook are growing stale, because these companies — that we have loved so fiercely over the years — are toying with our privacy.

We’ve been on the rocks with Facebook since the end of last year, when it surprised us with new privacy controls. They left us feeling overexposed and confused. Then, threatened by our relationship with Facebook, Google forced Buzz on us last week, and took our most intimate possession — our email contact lists — public.

When relationships go sour, we often get nostalgic. Are we falling in love with the anonymity and random connections of the early days of the Internet all over again? Chat Roulette and a new Urban Daddy offering, Failin.gs, make me think so.

Chat Roulette is all the rage right now — it’s been covered by New York Mag and the New York Times in the last week. The program, which has gone from less than 500 users at the beginning of the year to 20,000 per night, was created by a 17-year-old Russian, Andrey Ternovskiy, and lets you randomly video chat with people from across the globe. Basically, it’s an AOL chat room with video.

Meanwhile, Urban Daddy is launching* promoting a website called Failin.gs, a place where you create a profile for your “friends” to leave anonymous criticisms. It’s like a “What I-Hate-About-Your-Face”-book.

Why are these Web 1.0 creations suddenly hot?

Chat Roulette is extremely basic. There’s your webcam video, a box for a stranger’s webcam video, a chat box, and a “Next” button. Like roulette, you take your chances with what you’ll get when you hit next. It might be a guy in a cat suit or, more likely according to others who have tried it, penises in various stages of tumescence. According to Tim Walker at the Independent, it’s “like some bastard child of Skype and Stumbleupon.” I would make that a threesome, and add YouPorn.

The allure is not the masturbating chatters. Rather it’s the chance to have a unique and substantive encounter with someone random. There are no profiles for users. There are no long-term connections with other Chat Rouletters. You only know what you see and what they tell you before one of you hits next. It strikes me as an anti-social-networking movement.

Meanwhile, Failin.gs wants to turn friends against one another. An email from Urban Daddy inviting users to try a beta version says:

Welcome to Failin.gs, a dangerous new website where your friends can post what they really think of you, all with a cloak of total anonymity, in beta now.

In short, it’s the ideal spot for a no-holds-barred conversation about…long-festering feelings regarding your co-workers, friends and sworn archenemies. If you’re eager to face your critics (and really, you’ve got nothing to fear), you can sign up for a profile. Then you’ll send it to your friends (and/or frienemies) via Twitter, Facebook or email. They’ll be able to leave a tweet-length comment that’s meant to inspire improvement (“Your remarkable rainmaking skills are embarrassing the rest of us at the firm”), all without revealing their identities. If you disagree, you can say so with a vote; if your friends insist, they can also say so with a vote. (Basically, it’s like high school all over again.)

Well, that sounds… terrible. As a regular blogger with a, um, special relationship with my anonymous readers, I can tell you that inviting anonymous comments about yourself is a dangerous thing.

Do any of us really want to be on a site dedicated to anonymous personal attacks? Urban Daddy thinks so, and it’s a service known for being “in the know.”

Maybe we’re feeling burned by just how much we’re known on the Internet thanks to Facebook and Google Buzz. And that’s why these new services offering the thrill of anonymity and fleeting connections are appealing.

But I suspect Chat Roulette and Failin.gs will just be flings. Random penises and ad hominem attacks don’t usually lay the groundword for fulfilling or sustainable relationships.

* This post has been updated. An Urban Daddy representative contacted me to say:

UrbanDaddy is not “launching” Falin.gs. Rather, Failin.gs is a website that is independent of us, and one that we thought merited editorial coverage. UrbanDaddy is not affiliated with them (or with anything else we cover–UD is pure editorial) in any way.

More generally, UrbanDaddy would never, ever, dream of encouraging friends to turn against one another.


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  1. collapse expand

    I think you’re onto something here. One element of blogger I like is the random “next blog” function which takes you to a somewhat content-related yet random blog. I liked it even better when blogger couldn’t figure out my content and took me to truly random sites. Now I’ve somehow gotten pegged as “sports,” which misses my main content by about 4 years. But I still get a cheap thrill out of it.

  2. collapse expand

    Great write up.

    All online services like facebook or myspace come with a hitch or two. Some sell massive amounts of advertising which gets in the way of enjoyment of the product and some even sell the rights to data usage and user information.

    But people who use these services need to understand that it’s part of the bargin. In order to run these ‘free to use’ services it takes petabytes of storage space and lots of manpower in programing for scale.

    If you’re putting more on facebook than pictures of you partying then you need to rethink your program anyway…it’s free, love it or leave it.

  3. collapse expand

    It may be a guy thing but the combination of anonymous candor and random self-exposure sounds particularly threatening. The business model probably includes selling muscle cars and smart phones in the side bar.

  4. collapse expand

    I’m feeling the pull, myself. I recently discovered that, because of my last video short on T/S, I’ve been written about extensively on a (rather intense) gay blog called — wait for it — “cum lover.”

    The dude who runs it friend-requested me on Facebook a while back. For the most part, I only use FB for promoting my content, so I accept all my friend requests, even if I don’t know the person. Sometimes, it’s someone I just don’t remember from high school or something. I usually remember the person eventually, and wind up glad I didn’t reject the request.

    Anyway, this guy has raided my facebook pics and keeps posting all these photos of me on his site. The photos are harmless (I always un-tag anything that’s too incriminating), and I suppose I should be flattered. But he also, somehow, managed to find my gmail address, and now I’m getting all kinds of gay porn spam and creepy emails, with links to what he’s written about me. I assume buzz is to blame, because I don’t know how else he could have gotten my email address.

    I won’t pretend to be horrified. I’m not the most private person to begin with. But it has felt somewhat invasive. I’m just old enough (31) to have not grown up blogging about myself, keeping an online diary, etc. I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of living in public.

    Suddenly, I’m reconsidering my relationship to Facebook, and have already begun modifying my privacy settings accordingly. If I didn’t need it to promote my work, I’d probably abandon it altogether.

    • collapse expand

      I’m sorry, Austin. That sounds familiar to me…. I accept most Facebook friend requests but not all. I do a little screen where I check their profile to see if they’re a lawyer or law student (and thus an Above the Law reader). Or if they have a little note about liking True/Slant, I usually accept them. But I do put them on Limited Profile to limit access to some parts of my profile (mainly photos).

      But even then, I have had some negative experiences. Like when my aunt tagged me in a fairly embarrassing photo. Her privacy settings are lower than mine, so friends of mine were able to see it. I asked her to take it down but not before “Kash beaver shot” rumors made their way into the comments at Above the Law. (Though I’m fairly certain the photo was g-rated.)

      I guess that’s a price paid for all the self-promotion.

      Raiding your Facebook photos is a violation of Facebook’s Terms of Service though. If you report that to the “Facebook gods,” they’ll likely kick the guy off the site. A small revenge…

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    As one of the co-creators of failin.gs, let me just say, we are not out to turn friends against one another. Actually, and quite surprisingly, we’ve seen the opposite. We’ve seen something of a bond within the anonymity. A deep, considerate appreciation of unfettered feedback, and we’ve noticed that, over all, people have good friends. They care about one another. Their feedback is genuine and heart-felt.

    We were worried about abuse from the get-go (which is why we continue to implement extremely aggressive anti-abuse functionality), but we’re surprised by the level of “loving professionalism” that people have shown thus far. I’m pleasantly surprised. The response has been very positive.

    I’ve seen it time and again. If you treat people as adults, they often respond as adults, and failin.gs has been no exception thus far. Has there been abuse? Well of course there has been some. It is, after all, the Internet, but we’re providing a service. We’ve equipped it with the tools to respond to negativity and abuse, and we built it not to hurt one another, but to help one another.

    It is, in the end, completely opt-in, so if you don’t want to participate, you’re free to look the other way. We hope you join us, because it really is all quite liberating.

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    I am a writer, reporter, editor and blogger. I'm an editor at Above The Law, where I blog about lawyers, judges, law firms and the legal industry. Here at True/Slant, I write about our changing notions of privacy.

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