In a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine, Russia blogger Julia Ioffe wrote about the Russian teen who created Chatroulette. Ioffe also answered questions from the magazine’s readers in a live chat. Here is the transcript:
JULIA IOFFE: Hello, everyone! Julia Ioffe here, and very happy to be here. Can’t wait to get at some of these questions.
QUESTION FROM ARUIZCAMACHO: Your portrait of Ternovskiy’s first acquaintance with America is very poignant. Have you kept in touch with him? How’s he adjusting to his new country lately?
JULIA IOFFE: Yes, I’ve tried to stay in touch with Andrey, partially because it’s hard to just let go of an interesting person you get to know so well by reporting a story. It was also especially interesting to me to hear how he was adjusting to America given his high hopes for the place. At first, and especially after he got to San Francisco, he seemed to swoon a bit. Then as reality hit—meetings, the need to work and improve the site, the loneliness of turning 18 without your family—he cooled to it and told me that America is just like everywhere else—boring.
QUESTION FROM JOAN WARNER: Thank you for the terrific story particularly your analysis of what makes Chatroulette so compelling. Here’s my question: Andrey Ternovskiy may be an innovator, but he started out as a hacker. Unless I misunderstood your piece, he broke into private email accounts, stole material from his school’s computer system for the purpose of cheating, and brought down commercial sites for the fun of it, probably causing business owners significant losses. How come he’s not in jail? Why isn’t hacking punished the way fraud or embezzlement are in the nonvirtual world?
JULIA IOFFE: This is a complex question. The first, more global answer is that this is a legal area that has yet to catch up to the technology. Hacking is a highly lucrative, fast-evolving business—at least for those that do it for money, and it doesn’t seem that Andrey was—and governments and legal systems tend to move slowly. Moreover, it’s hard to get any international agreement on what constitutes a crime, or a punishment. A notable example was when a major hacker was traced to the Philippines and had to be let go because hacking was not a crime in the Philippines.
The other part of the answer is that there are still relatively few opportunities for kids with programming skills in Russia. The hi-tech sector, though booming, is still relatively small. As I said in my story, oil, gas, mineral extraction, etc.—not start-ups—fund nearly two-thirds of the Russian federal budget. So if there’s nowhere for you to take those skills, one often turns to hacking.
QUESTION FROM DAVID ELINS: 1. I wonder what the age distribution is for people using Chatroulette? Also, is it different for men and women? 2. I’m also curious about how many Chatroulette “conversations” lead to face-to-face meetings (not many, I assume). 3. It is often said that on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog. I guess this blows that thought to pieces.
JULIA IOFFE: So this is a really interesting question, I think. The spread has shifted a bit since Chatroulette first made a splash—the users have gotten a bit older—but they are still mostly male, and between the ages of 25-34. (It used to be 18-24.) The other telling phenomenon is that most of these users are from the United States, France, Britain, and China. Very, very few Russians use it. And the question is, why? My hypothesis is that these are highly ordered societies, each in their own way, and people living in them, especially young men—the excitable electron in any society—crave a bit of the entropy that Chatroulette brings them. In Russia, a country where things are random, chaotic, and often unpredictable, people tend to gravitate toward highly ordered social networks, like VKontakte, the Russian analog of Facebook. As for face-to-face meetings, I think Andrey is working on a feature that will let people re-find each other if they both agree. Stay tuned for that!
QUESTION FROM MICHAEL: What was Russian media reaction on your article and especially on Andrey’s decision to stay in America?
JULIA IOFFE: Believe it or not, Chatroulette is not a big thing in Russia at all. The Russian media and government have caught on to the phenomenon belatedly. And by belatedly I mean, after Andrey flew the coop. I know that the Kremlin is now very eager to promote him, though I don’t know that they know he’s gone for good. DST’s heated courtship of Andrey—I think they’ve now patched things up—is testament to that.
QUESTION FROM GUEST: Too bad we can’t be chatting on Chatroulette for this…
JULIA IOFFE: Zing! If only Chatroulette allowed big crowds of people to talk, right?
QUESTION FROM GUEST: Thanks! Now, who’s winning in the race to be Chatroulette’s No. 1 investor?
JULIA IOFFE: Well, it’s hard to say. Andrey, for good reasons, is keeping mum. As far as I can tell, however, DST is still very much in the picture, as is Zynga (the maker of all those Facebook games), which partially owned by DST. Also, DST once offered to buy a 10% share; Andrey refused. But now he seems to be thinking of selling the whole shop so he can move on to other projects.
QUESTION FROM THESSALY: There’s a chance that if Andrey figured out how to monetize his site, he might lose his core user base, no? Look at how vigilant Wikipedians are about keeping their space ad free? Or 4Chan…
JULIA IOFFE: First of all, hello to Thessaly, TNY’s web wunderkind! [Ed. note: She’s now the web editor of The Paris Review. Félicitations!] This is a good question and something Andrey seems to be grappling with. I talked a lot about this with his dad, Vladimir, who fervently insisted that the site remain as wild and free as possible. The problem, of course, is that this draws in a lot of exhibitionists, and that Andrey has to eat and pay for his new Palo Alto apartment. Andrey seems to be happy just having one tiny advertising line at the bottom of the page that brings in enough money to cover expenses (servers, programmers, etc.) and leave room and profit at the end of the month. This probably wouldn’t satisfy venture capitalists looking for something they can later take to the bank. It’ll be interesting to watch how this little experiment in the limits of freedom will develop.
QUESTION FROM MIKE: Do you think there will evolve a greater level of censorship as investors participate?
JULIA IOFFE: Another part of the freedom dilemma, right? I’ve spoken to prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalists who were quite skeptical of this, especially at first. Esther Dyson told me that she would not be interested in investing until the site was cleaned up and made a bit stickier. And that’s a problem—do you require registration, which kind of undoes the founding principle? Or do you go for the money? Andrey, I know, is working on getting around this in a more subtle way.
QUESTION FROM JAKE: Why would anyone try acquire Chatroulette when its features/tech are trivial to clone? If Facebook wanted to create Facebookroulette, Andrey’s company would be worthless.
JULIA IOFFE: That’s another issue investors mentioned to me. When I spoke to people back in March, they were hanging back to see whether this would develop further or turn into an easily cloned meme that is a pointless money sink. I think the jury’s still out, and Andrey is definitely feeling the pressure.
QUESTION FROM MAT WRIGHT: Is the main attraction to Chatrouette the randomness, or that fact it is video (vs. text)?
JULIA IOFFE: Personally, I think it is randomness. Text and video are easily done elsewhere, like Gchat or Skype. If you’ve ever tried it, you quickly discover that curiosity about what’s next is addictive. It was for me, at least, and it seemed like that was the main thrust of a lot of the essays and responses first written when Chatroulette came on the scene—like a warped version of that Dr. Seuss book “Oh, the People You’ll Meet.” Also, it’s what makes Merton, whoever he is, so damn entertaining, right? How is he able to fire off such witty, musically coherent songs within 3 nanoseconds of a stranger appearing on his screen?
QUESTION FROM GUEST: In your piece, you write, roughly, that Andrey wilts in person and flourishes online. Chatroulette, being video based, is still a face to face interaction. Does Andrey like using his own invention?
JULIA IOFFE: Well, as you recall, Andrey is Skyper. It’s still the best way to communicate with him. And as a friend recently pointed out to me, there’s something a little bit safer and less awkward about just typing to the person, as I described myself doing in the piece. Apparently, lots of people do that. And, like I said in response to Mat, it is the randomness that he loves. He, like everyone at that age, gets bored easily. Chatroulette alleviates that.
QUESTION FROM ATAKAN O: Chatroulette is Omegle with video, the sites are almost identical.
JULIA IOFFE: Right, except that Omegle was one of the umpteen clones that popped up when Chatroulette exploded. It existed before Chatroulette, but this March added a video function. It also doesn’t seem to have that something that Chatroulette nailed and thus was able to tap so powerfully. If you go on Omegle now [Ioffe goes on Omegle now], you’ll see that there are only 6,485 users online. And the big draw of Chatroulette, as we’ve discussed, is randomness, which is greatly, greatly enhanced the bigger the pool of random strangers.
QUESTION FROM JESS: What do you make of people’s desire not to just meet people online, but to get naked in front of them? Is this aggressive, or sort of passive and charming?
JULIA IOFFE: Oof, charming? That might be a stretch. I don’t quite know what to make of it myself except to explain it as the common exhibitionist urge, but amped up because there are no consequences: you’ll get banned from the site, but you won’t be arrested like Pee-wee Herman. And no one will ever know it was you exposing yourself. I’d love to hear people’s theories on this, though. Anyone?
QUESTION FROM JANIEJANER: “It might replace everything,” Ternovskiy says of his computer—I find that inestimably sad. Based on the time you spent with him, do you envision him growing out of this (one can hope) adolescent digital isolation?
JULIA IOFFE: This is a question not just about Andrey, who seems to be the consummate introvert, but about his generation more broadly. They grew up with their faces glued to computer screens, they find socializing virtually to be a pretty good stand-in or supplement for face-to-face interaction. I don’t know if this is sad, or just the way things will evolve. Their parents and older siblings are doing it, too, I might add: how often have you sent an office-mate an email instead of getting up and making the walk to make the request in person?
QUESTION FROM OLGA: What do you think about the ability to simply “cancel” the conversation you are having and move on to the next person? Is it the ultimate freedom? Or do we teach those who use a program like that about the lack of consequences for what you do/say?
QUESTION FROM OLGA: Well, people getting naked on camera is just one step up from aggressively sexual comments in chat rooms, no? Once again, almost goes to the lack of accountability for your actions.
JULIA IOFFE: I think that’s part of the appeal. It’s something you can never get away with in real life. It feels dangerous because of that, and yet the Next button is protection, and absolution.
QUESTION FROM MIKE: Kids on video chat often try to get each other to strip down or strip down themselves… we’ve seen plenty of reputations ruined when a naked picture of an ex-girlfriend gets distributed around the high school. Chatroulette provides the same (or close to) excitement of this experience, with, as you said, no consequences. In other words, this hasn’t created a new urge but has merely provided an outlet for one many would have deemed to embarrassing or risky when their AOL screen name was attached.
JULIA IOFFE: Couldn’t have said it better myself.
QUESTION FROM GUEST: Why do you think Chatroulette generates such a strong “moral” reaction from people? What about it, other than its random encounters, makes everyone so uncomfortable?
JULIA IOFFE: I think it’s the feeling of ceding of a lot of the control you have when you speak to someone you choose to speak to. Also, getting back to the point about Andrey feeling he only needs the computer to survive, I think that’s a lot of the reason young people interact so much online: despite all the concerns about privacy and lack thereof ruining lives, communicating through Facebook or chatting textually gives you a lot of control in shaping how you come across to your peers. Chatroulette yanks that rug out from under you to an extent. Speaking from my personal experience on the site, I’ve definitely pressed the Next button way too fast at times—it’s scary. There’s this feeling, I think, akin to dunking yourself in an icy river in January, voluntarily: hold your breath, try not to panic, try to enjoy yourself.
QUESTION FROM GUEST: I’m most curious about the psychological implications for people who use Chatroulette. I agree with you that much (all) of Andrey’s generation grew up with their face on the computer screen, and that they might favor virtual interaction over real life engagement. But what about older users? And what kind of long-term effects do you think this kind of website might have on its users? Is this an example of the internet increasing our capability/efficiency? Or something more foreboding and widely detrimental?
JULIA IOFFE: I think older users, who grew up socializing primarily face-to-face and thus are wired a bit differently, are bewildered by the site and generally stay away. There are very few older users; the vast majority is under 35. As for long-term impact, I’m not sure, honestly. I think the phenomenon is too young. It would have to be a lot stickier—that is, people would have to use it much more regularly than they do now—and be around longer for us to even begin to theorize on psychological impact. And the stickiness factor is not to be underestimated: is there something off about repeated randomness? How often can one realistically do that?
Okay, we should wrap up, but I wanted to get to some of the questions about the Russian tech scene, because those are important, too.
QUESTION FROM ANON: What’s your sense about Andrey, can he manage this beast that he’s created? And could such a venture succeed in Russia, or does he really need American backing?
JULIA IOFFE: I think the issue here is a lot more basic: despite all the money sloshing around here, there is simply very little venture capital to go around in Russia, and an attendant lack of investment culture in this kind of stuff. Many entrepreneurs are forced to ask family for investments, or to make a profit right out the gate. (This, by the way, stunned visiting American techies in February: most tech start-ups in Russia are profitable!) The only big tech venture fund in Russia is DST, and it is mostly interested in buying ready-to-wear companies that have been around for a while and are on the verge of going public. So there might be great ideas coming out of Russia, but there isn’t money going to the young saplings. Even the big tech success stories here, like Yandex (the search engine), got their start at least in part from Western funds.
QUESTION FROM THESSALY: Do you think the attention Andrey and his site received will (in response to what you said above at ) help bring to life a non-existence tech scene in Russia?
JULIA IOFFE: So that’s the other side of the question. The tech scene here is small, yes, and it’s lost many of its best minds to Silicon Valley, but it’s here and it’s vibrant. I think the challenge for Russia—and the real challenge for President Medvedev’s modernization agenda—is to create an environment that is conducive to this kind of creativity, as well as one that has the nutrients to sustain it once it sprouts. That, admittedly, is hard to do when key figures in the Kremlin come out and insist that modernization will have to be “authoritarian modernization.”
All right, I think that’s all for tonight—I’m in Moscow, and it’s late here—but it’s been a pleasure speaking to all of you. Thank you so much to everyone for your interesting, thought-provoking questions, even the ones that didn’t get through. I’ll be chewing on all of this for some time. Good night