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Mar. 5 2010 - 9:49 am | 1,315 views | 1 recommendation | 6 comments

ChatRoulette’s boring in-your-face design

Wheel of fortune. Shot wide open using 50mm/f1.

Image via Wikipedia

Chat roulette is a terrific idea for a web-site. Spin the dial, meet a stranger. Instant intimacy, like an interesting seat-mate on a train or plane. Only the most curmudgeonly wouldn’t occasionally want such chats with strangers from someplace else.

But “ChatRoulette,” the current web-fad grabbing headlines and time, even Jon Stewart’s attention? Well, sad to say but the site is really dumb. Actually, I found it flat and disappointing. Sure, it was briefly amusing, but after spending some time there I must say the site is an awful way to express a great idea.

So, what’t the problem? Simple. They’ve designed the site so there’s nothing at stake, the site is not roulette-y enough. There is no way to lose your bet. The design flattens the experience it offers by ignoring the psychology of the people who might use it.  What could be really great has been made into a sometimes smutty curiosity.

Let’s look at what it offers. You can win by having an interesting exchange. And you can not-win by seeing something or someone you’d rather not see. But you can’t lose. Losing is not not-wining and if we can’t lose, if there’s nothing at risk, all we can have is a diminished experience that ends up diminishing the players. If you don’t lose when a bet goes wrong games get pretty boring pretty quickly. Like ChatRoulette

Jared Lanier, in his “must read drop what you are doing and read it now” book/manifesto You Are Not a Gadget, talks about how the accidents and compromises of software design can get “locked-in” which then limits the experience the software can provide.

For example, the MIDI interface for digital music has gotten “locked-in” as the standard for digital music, despite it having been made by “a music synthesizer designer named Dave Smith [who] casually made up a way to represent musical notes.” It was a hack for keyboards and as such MIDI “could describe the tile mosaic world of the keyboardist, not the watercolor world of the violin” (Lanier, p. 7).  Nevertheless, it is now the standard for digital music.  Works well enough, but the lock-in of an accidental software standard is giving us a digital music world made of tile mosaics absent watercolors.

Similarly, social networks have categories (single, in a relationship, etc.) that increasingly define a framework for social life. When relationships get organized via a database that has been locked-in, they will necessarily be limited by software requiring rigid categories. How many people now have their daily social life organized by the categories and processes imagined by a college kid named Mark hacking around in his dorm room?

Which brings us back to Chatroulette: Do we really want to get “locked-in” to risk-free games of social roulette? Do we want to experience other people as disposable as an unwanted show encountered while channel surfing? Shouldn’t there be something at risk so we all try, at least a little, to make it work even when it will be nothing more than a few moments of contact.

Here’s the fix, nothing big, nothing too risky. Just imagine one small change to the interface design that would add some manageable risk and make the site interesting again.

Imagine that before you first hit Play and encountered your first stranger you were required to bet a minimum amount of time you would spend together before the Next button was enabled. You would only be matched with people who had bet at least that same amount of time. Of course you could continue to bet zero. But imagine if you could also choose a 1 minute minimum, or 5, or anything you wanted and then only get matched with someone who made a bet that was at least as large. My bet is that there would be fewer penises and many, many more interesting chats.

Here’s hoping the designer of the site listens to me, it’ll be awesome.


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  1. collapse expand

    I like the simplistic design of http://bouncechat.com
    although the group chat at http://camstumble.com is nice too.

    Anyway I definitely agree the design on chatroulette is lacking.

  2. collapse expand

    Actually, the naked penises might be partial to the time-bet concept. Then they’d be locked in a virtual room with another person for a set period of time. You’d def need an escape hatch as well.

    Some background on ChatRoulette: its founder is a 17-year-old high school student in Moscow, and he created the site for fun.

    “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.”

    What’s happening with ChatRoulette is similar to what happened with Twitter: a site getting too big before it’s ready for primetime. Serendipitous discovery and sharing can blow up a product, for good or for bad. That’s the beauty (and sometimes the curse) of a digital world.

    ChatRoulette was never actually intended for wide audience distribution, especially since 17-year-old Andrey Ternovskiy is footing the bills. It’s now a huge opportunity for him, though, and an even more interesting one if he lets the audience help drive product development.

    • collapse expand

      Good stuff Andrea. I vaguely remember an old joke making the rounds when aol first gave members Internet access. Something like “AOL physicists have discovered the shortest measurable distance in the universe–that between an online adolescent male and images of exposed breasts.”

      And that’s Lanier’s point about the dangers of getting locked-in to accidental software limitations. Chatroulette is brilliant as a toy for adolescent boys to see random naked parts, but as a mass market social network maybe we can do a better job thinking through the human side of things.

      Is risk the way to go? Maybe something like the way reddit does karma points? Maybe different channels for people actually looking for this or that? Who knows??

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

        I love the idea of karma points/user ratings for fellow chatters. That would definitely improve the game component, but it would eliminate a big part of what currently defines the site: complete anonymity.

        This time betting proposal is an interesting one. You should send it along to Russia, or start programming your own site… ChatRouBet?

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

          ChatRouBet? That’s terrific! In fact, I think it is so terrific that I just registered the domain … I’m the proud owner of ChatRouBet.com.

          We’ve got the idea and now we’ve got the domain. Next we need to get some technology, some good tevhnology—how about it Andrea, think you could be the tech-guru for ChatRouBet.com?

          …..oh, I guess we need capital too before it’s a business, but all things in due time,.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
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