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New service aims to improve on Chatroulette

Known as ChatImprov, the Facebook application aims to take the best parts of Chatroulette--connecting people with strangers--and offer them in a safer, more comfortable environment.

A service that is about to go into beta called ChatImprov aims to offer Facebook users the best and most interesting parts of Chatroulette, but without the male nudity. ChatImprov

If you like the basic concept of Chatroulette--video chatting with random strangers--but are tired of clicking "next," "next," "next," and men behaving lewdly, a start-up called ChatImprov says it has an alternative.

ChatImprov, said CEO Lee Lorenzen, is a service that offers video chatting between random strangers, but in a way that is designed to offer participants more engaging, interesting encounters than can usually be found on Chatroulette. Though it hopes to achieve that goal through a series of measures, the most direct is by creating a ratings system called ChatRank.

Simply put, Lorenzen said that the idea for ChatRoulette is to offer something for "people who are tired of 'nexting' past boring losers...and offers up video chat with interesting strangers, like our patron saint, Merton."

If you're not familiar with Merton, he's the so-called "Piano Improv" star of Chatroulette. Last month, a video viewed by millions surfaced of Merton improvising on piano (see video below) to surprised--and mainly delighted--Chatroulette users. Many thought that Merton bore a strong resemblance to the famous singer-songwriter Ben Folds, who, after denying he'd been the one in the video, proceeded to do an homage to Merton during at least two concerts.

"Merton showed up on the landscape and had a very viral video that showed, in one sense, for the first time how Chatroulette could go beyond poor man's pornography," Lorenzen said.

Facebook app
Unlike Chatroulette, which is a stand-alone Web-based service, ChatImprov is essentially a Facebook application, and because of that, would seem to offer users some of the benefits--and protections--of being connected to the giant social network.

"One of the challenges that we faced is that we want this experience to be one that is not scary and not illegal and is instead more uplifting and inspiring and family-friendly," Lorenzen said. "So one of the ways we intend to do that is have ChatImprov...stand on the shoulders of Facebook's very strict terms of service and leverage the power of Facebook to enforce the rules so people can be comfortable that their chances of seeing a lewd act inside ChatImprov is almost zero, while it's almost 100 percent inside Chatroulette.

Chatroulette founder Andrey Ternovskiy did not respond to an interview request for this article, but he recently told All Things Digital that he "has made a subtle but important tweak already--specifically, changes to the 'reporting people' function designed to cut down on the male genitalia that famously crop up throughout the site."

In addition, All Things D reported, Ternovskiy has also built a new Chatroulette feature expected to be called "Chessroulette" that seems to be designed to give both people in an encounter a chessboard or other game to play against each other as an icebreaker. And he showed off a new version of the service that presents people with a single, large picture of their chat partner instead of small pictures of themselves and the person on the other side of the conversation.

Still, though there are a growing number of people using Chatroulette in a variety of creative ways, Lorenzen said the service has evolved into little more than a game of nexting. "That's the typical experience for most people inside of Chatroulette," he said. "We don't think that's very interesting for either party."

One major problem, he suggested, is that there appears to be a vast gender imbalance on Chatroulette. According to unsourced figures Lorenzen provided, 90 percent of Chatroulette users are men. And since, he said, most men are likely to click next when they see another man, that leaves little room for meaningful discourse.

By comparison, ChatImprov is aiming for a fifty-fifty gender split, something he said would likely lead to more and lengthier conversations. Of course, many online services strive for a larger share of women; actually convincing them to show up, and stay, on a service is another matter.

But that's one area where Lorenzen said ChatRank will come in useful. He explained that the feature will help users get more out of the service by providing a game-like element and giving them more incentive to be interesting and to foster longer conversations. That's because ChatRank will reward users who stick around longer and penalize those who click next too soon.

The higher your ChatRank, Lorenzen said, the more likely that you will be paired up with someone else with a high ranking. And vice versa.

Some may say, of course, that the whole notion of chatting with random strangers who may or may not be doing something rude is highly overrated. But clearly, millions of Chatroulette users feel otherwise. It's possible that many of those people have been participating because the service is an attractive fad, but Lorenzen feels that there is real value in having the opportunity to pair up with someone with a completely different background.

That sentiment is hardly rare. Danah Boyd, one of the world's leading social-media researchers wrote not long ago that she loves the way Chatroulette gives her the opportunity to communicate with strangers, something that has largely gone by the wayside as more and more people have become alarmed at the purported dangers strangers pose online.

Critical mass
ChatImprov will conduct a private beta test Thursday and a more open experiment on April 15. But while users will all be given a ChatRank, Lorenzen said that for the time being the service will not allow people to see any kind of leader board or choose with whom they will be paired. In part, he said, that's because it will take a critical mass of users before such features would be worthwhile.

The more users there are, he explained, the shorter the average conversation needs to be in order for people to feel satisfied with their experience. The fewer users, the longer the conversation has to be, given the higher chance that they will run into the same person again.

Ultimately, Lorenzen said, it will take in the hundreds to thousands of users before users no longer run out of strangers to talk to in any given session.

Yet while talking to strangers is the initial goal of a service like Chatroulette or ChatImprov, finding people with whom to build friendships is a potential secondary goal. And in that regard, Lorenzen said, building ChatImprov on top of Facebook is a natural evolution since the social-networking site offers users the tools they need to connect privately.

Another important factor in building up a steadily increasing number of ChatImprov users is that the service depends on them to pay its bills. Because it is built around a game mechanic, Lorenzen and his partners, Darren LaRose and Craig Dellandrea, have designed a virtual currency called Chat chips that participants can either earn by being considered interesting by other users, or can buy with real money. The chips can be cashed in for higher ChatRank.

But while there certainly is an opportunity, Lorenzen admitted, that some may try to buy their way into a higher ranking, he countered that if they are not actually interesting, they'll quickly lose that ranking.

In the end, there's no way to know if any Chatroulette imitator can generate the kind of interest that the original did. For many, the novelty is gone, and what remains is the rather odd notion of having instant interactions with total strangers, many of whom may be behaving in ways not generally considered proper.

Still, there are likely many millions of people who have yet to try Chatroulette and who may find a more regulated version of such a service attractive. And that's where ChatImprov and surely others will try to fill the gap. As well, Chatroulette itself may look to add even more features to make itself feel safer to the masses, though one wonders whether that would turn off its core audience.

Either way, Lorenzen said that ChatImprov is a perfect match for Facebook and will offer that site's 400 million users something they haven't previously had an easy way to do.

"There's definite value in connecting with strangers," Lorenzen said. "We think [ChatImprov] has an ability to do something that Facebook isn't good at. Facebook is great at connecting you with people you already know. But to have a conversation with [someone you don't know], that's not Facebook's strength."