2021 10 08
As an aging millennial, there are a several images from my late-teens that are burned into my memory: Fedoras that weren’t yet universally douchey. "Whale tails." Stick-on vampire fangs from Hot Topic, perfect for a Tumblr post. And, thanks to Chatroulette, strangers’ dicks—bathed in the grainy sepia tones of a dorm bunk bed, streamed through a 0.3 megapixel netbook webcam bought at the school’s bookstore.
The website, which matched random strangers together over video chat, peaked within months of its launch. It was fairly primitive then: A live video window, a chat box, a "next" button, and if you wanted, total anonymity. You could put on a Guy Fawkes mask, or just point the camera away from you, to deflect from whatever the site might show you next. A lot of the time, it was a dude with his junk out.
When I open the site today, the Chatroulette I used to know looks very different. The changes that have happened in the last 12 years are the work of Chatroulette’s founder, Andrey Ternovskiy, and his unending quest to stop people from showing their dick on his website.
"Face detection is used to keep the site clean," a message below my video window says. Once the system finds my face, a message pops up about what would come next: a choice between two people. If my choice and I selected one another, the chat would begin. And then, another warning: "Chatroulette is moderated. Inappropriate behavior is forbidden. See rules." I’m asked to sign in, either with Google or Facebook.
When Ternovskiy launched the site in late 2009, he was 17. The site was an overnight viral sensation, with more than a million users per day at its peak. Much of the media attention it garnered (and it was covered everywhere, from NPR to Tosh.0) focused on the reputation it had gained as a place to flash meat to unsuspecting strangers, from the comfort of your bedroom. In 2010, a now-defunct analytics firm determined through some undisclosed method of nude numbers-crunching that the "overall pervert rate in Chatroulette is 13 percent," meaning about one in every eight sessions contained something explicit.
“I don’t want to create some fancy solution that looks at the shape of the penis. It’s stupid. It’s unbelievable.”
Over the last decade, we’ve logged on to Chatroulette for the nostalgia of the thing, or as a stunt; usually spurred on by a roommate and some wine, plus boredom, or a search for the meaning of happiness. People keep returning to this 12 year old website whose gimmick we’ve already seen, so we must be on the hunt for something deeper. Over the last two years of pandemic lockdowns, that hunt has become more vulnerable, if not a little pathetic: a simple connection with another human, a lifeline out of the loneliness of quarantine. Even in the midst of death, destruction, and despair, however, it’s still mostly dicks.
All this time, Ternovskiy has been working on what he called the "penis problem." It’s not that he’s against sex; people flashing on his site not only shaped its reputation forever, but caused it to hemorrhage visitors. If someone logged on once and saw something that offended them, he said, they’d log off and never come back. He would prefer to be hands-off from the site’s ecosystem, and let it grow however it will. "My first goal is to make a site which people enjoy, whether that’s acceptable in the culture or not," he told me. "Luckily, nobody wants dicks."
Getting men to keep it in their pants is no small task—and Ternovskiy, mostly as a one-person team (although he is currently looking for new advisors), has thrown a variety of fixes at the penis problem.
In 2010, for a brief time a few months after it launched, Chatroulette had themed rooms that users themselves created, with sections including "sex," "gayteen," "girls," and "cybersex-local." Sex, of course, was the most popular. This didn’t quarantine the dicks into one section, however, but opened up new problems for bespoke groups.
"You still have people that nobody wants to see, you know. Even if we are united that we are all into, you know, funky times, there’s still some people that take more than give," Ternovskiy said.
In 2011, he introduced a face and flesh recognition system, that detected "excessive amounts of exposed skin while simultaneously recognizing faces as appropriate skin," the results of which were analyzed by University of Colorado’s Department of Computer Science and McGill University’s School of Computer Science. The study found that it was successful in filtering out nearly 60 percent of "offensive material and ads." Ternovskiy told CBC that he had a team of 100 moderators manually reviewing webcams to mark offensive ones, and ban those users.
The feature that lets users pick from two chat partners was inspired by Tinder’s swiping mechanics; the guided randomness gives a little control back to the user, while theoretically letting them avoid seeing something they don’t want to. In June 2020, he hired Hive, an AI firm that specializes in moderation, to help with nudity detection efforts.
Even as he’s deploying these fixes, Ternovskiy knows they’re bandaids. Running a website is like carrying a bucket with tiny, imperceptible holes, he told me. Users are the water; if there’s a hole, people will find it. Systemic solutions—facial recognition, machine learning algorithms that detect "too much" skin—are a "plague on our society," he said, distracting developers into false confidence. People are more clever than that. They use magazine covers to bypass the facial recognition, and jerk off just off-screen to avoid showing skin.
"If you create Chatroulette for [adult content], then it’s just going to be dicks looking at dicks. It just doesn’t work."
"Ideally, I don’t want to ban them. I don’t want to create some fancy solution that looks at the shape of the penis. It’s stupid. It’s unbelievable," Ternovskiy said. "It’s actually such a scam, this whole industry, because it sounds like a kind of intelligence—’oh, you can have a machine to recognize penis.’ But then in reality, it’s so stupid, because you have one million ways you could be offensive. You know?"
I do. Anyone who’s used the internet for the last decade does.
Today, Ternovskiy employs a small force of Russian women as undercover users (all freelancers, and at the moment there are seven of them, but one person could do it) to act as canaries in Chatroulette’s coal mine. For an hour per test session, they’re calculating: How many males? How many females? How many groups? Black screens? Spam bots? How much explicitly sexual content? Implicit? They’ll provoke other users—like, "show me what you’ve got," as Ternovskiy paraphrases it—and take notes. They’re not there to ban or report anyone.
"I want to see the worst case of the site," he said, particularly from a woman’s perspective. "If 20 percent of connections contain penis, that’s ridiculous. That’s when I have to go back to the drawing board."
I asked Ternovskiy why, if he’s not morally against it, he doesn’t just lean into the lewdness. While sites like MyFreeCams and LiveJasmin launched years prior, he would have been squarely in the middle of an independent adult creator boom when Chatroulette took off. Some of today’s most popular live camming sites, including Chaturbate, Camsoda, and Stripchat, would launch in the six years following Chatroulette.
"I strongly knew that Chatroulette was more than dicks," he said. And a live streaming site full of poorly lit penises probably wouldn’t have worked anyway. "If you create Chatroulette for [adult content], then it’s just going to be dicks looking at dicks. It just doesn’t work."
These days, he’s working on an internal currency feature, where users will earn points based on how much time they spend talking to other people. One of the new features, that didn’t exist when Chatroulette was at its early-aughts peak, is forcing users to log in to use the site. He plans to set up a reputation-scoring system. In order to meet a new person, you will have to pay points; in order to earn points, you’ll have to talk to the people that you meet. There are shades of nuance in the system he’s planning—if you’re talking to someone with a low score, the interaction costs you nothing, for example—and it’s still a work in progress. But he hopes this could incentivize people to use the site for conversations and creativity.
"It’s not about penises, it’s about giving and taking. It’s about how much you contribute and how much you take," he said.
Ultimately, Ternovskiy told me he is grateful for the penis problem. It’s forced him to innovate where he otherwise might not have. "For me, it’s quite demotivating to just solve penis problems, because if that’s the only thing I do in 11 years, that’s going to be disappointing…I also want to make this fun," he said. He compared it to human space flight: The goal may have been to get humans to the moon, but from that mission, we have firefighter suits and pacemakers.
"I really hate to see things die," Ternovskiy said. "And I really want to take Chatroulette in the future. You know, it doesn’t have to be the same Chatroulette, but I want to continue, for the story to live on."