Interview with Chatroulette Founder Andrey Ternovskiy
Freelance journalist based in Denver
the “dick problem” // virtual reality for cats // the stupidity of going to mars // mathematical machines of evil // why being a god would be boring // creating your own country in the ocean
In November 2009, the Great Recession was at its peak, I Gotta Feeling by the Black Eyed Peas graced the airwaves ("I got my money! Let's spend it up!), and Chatroulette burst onto the scene.
Created by a 17-year-old Russian in his bedroom, the site’s premise is simple: users are paired randomly for webcam chats (they can either talk or type into a chat box, but you can always see their video). The option is available at any point to click a “next” button and jump to another random pairing.
Founder Andrey Ternovskiy described Chatroulette to the German newspaper Der Spiegel at the time as
“like the street in some big city, where you see all kinds of unknown faces. Some of those faces appeal to you, some disgust you. Chatroulette is a street that you walk along where you can chat to whomever you like.”
Upon launching, Chatroulette immediately blew up, with 50,000 users per day in December 2009, and 1.5 million users by May of 2010. As a sign of its standing in popular culture, the site earned ridicule on mainstream comedy shows like South Park and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Its legacy continues today—the site is responsible for originating “next” as a verb.
I used Chatroulette once or twice in 2010, always in a group setting and always shitfaced. I remember one night we talked to a guy from France who was sitting at his kitchen table smoking a cigarette. He was smoking inside! I also think he was wearing a black beret?
I couldn’t get over how he was smoking inside and wearing a beret! “YOU ARE SO FRENCH!!” I think I screamed at him. He responded with a demure, closed-lip smile.
Chatroulette is crazy, is my point. It can be anything, which is its beauty. It is anonymous. You can do any sort of video performance art you want. You can ask the random strangers any question on your mind. You can make confessions. Think about PostSecret. The things people create when given an interesting constraint and the condition of anonymity are pretty cool.
But all anyone wanted to do on Chatroulette was take out their dick, it turned out.
The users were “89% male and 13% perverts,” according to a study done by an analytics startup. Chatroulette was quickly overrun by dudes wanting to masturbate with someone. Predictably, that got old fast, and Chatroulette all but disappeared from culture ten years ago, mere months after it launched. A shooting star.
The night the shelter-in-place order came into effect in my city, I thought about Chatroulette for the first time in a decade. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. It turns out Chatroulette’s usage has tripled with the world in Quarantine (lol why did I capitalize that? I’m gonna leave it) and people hungry for connection.
Ternovskiy, who says he never gave up on Chatroulette, is working with a team to breathe new life into the site. One of the changes is that there are now three different chat options: Random (anything), Filtered (“No adult or sexual content”), and Unfiltered (“18+, no children or minors”).
I talked to Ternovskiy, who grew up in Moscow but currently lives in Switzerland, for a couple hours about Chatroulette and some of his other thoughts about various matters concerning technology and society.
Georgia Perry: Chatroulette is back because of Coronavirus. Usage has tripled from this same time last year. How are you feeling? What do you make of Chatroulette’s resurgence?
Andrey Ternovskiy: It was a surprise. I did not expect it. Normally you don’t expect miracles. It’s nice. Not nice, I guess, for people who have to stay at home, but nice for me.
It just goes to show how everything can change overnight.
I cannot expect that numbers that are obtained because people are forced to stay at home is truly representative. It’s not my achievement. People have to stay at home so every online service is used more. But again, still it’s very positive. It’s inspiring for me, for the users. Regardless of how it came to be, which I think is luck and, again, it’s a borrowed kind of time.
All this gives it a new breath. Society gave it a second chance and I have to do something with it. Not really sure what, but apparently yeah, someone needs it. Unless we use this momentum to do something positive for this project there is no miracle, right?
GP: So what have the past ten years been like for you, running Chatroulette?
AT: It was an amazing blessing. I really appreciate. It’s just a brain training in every aspect. It’s multi-dimensional. In the past I loved to program, I loved to code. And I built Chatroulette. And, by the way, I don’t think I was the absolute best developer out there. My friends were better developers. But I love to work with computer anyhow. Well, actually I don’t know—“love,” but the point is I made it and it went, as you know, apeshit.
It was super popular in 2010 and then yeah, it was a viral sensation and it was hard to retain that. The statistics were declining every year because it was not in vogue. Every year it was declining but I never gave up.
I was, for a long time, alone working on it. Until 2017 I was alone on the project. I loved it because I loved the challenge and it was kind of fun to do with yourself alone because you are responsible for the outcome. Everything that’s in your mind is integrated. And when you have an idea you can just go and make it, you don’t have to go through some bureaucracy, approvals, you can just go and do it. It’s amazing. Until 2017 I was one with my project, I was just living and thinking Chatroulette.
The problem is, it’s incompatible with reality. It’s hard, you want a break. You need help. You need sometimes help. I couldn’t take a vacation.
For me, the challenge was how to transition from being a programmer to running a business. Normally when you’re an entrepreneur you’re supposed to work with people.
To meet people you have to go out or whatever and it’s just a hard transition to make. When you’re in code you do not think about this real life at all.
That was one challenge. Also this young age kind of made me unconfident to hire people, I felt like they wouldn’t listen to me because I’m so young. Bossing people around, also. That’s still uncomfortable to me today.
This whole concept of managers and telling people what to do, I have a problem with it.
One of the reasons I started Chatroulette was I never—I wanted freedom. My mindset was always to make my own project so people don’t tell me what to do. That, to me, would be nightmare. I had problem with authority and I hate to be an authority to others, which also makes it hard to run a business.
This year is the first year where I have actually a proper team.
It’s trial and error. It’s interesting. At this stage, when your project is successful, it’s not so important if you can program, because now people can program for you, they just ask you what do you want. You have to explain it to them in a convincing way, an inspiring way.
And this is new skills. People like their own ideas. It’s more important that you let people come up with their own idea, even if it’s different than what you would have done.
GP: If Chatroulette itself was like, an entity, or if it had a personality, how would you describe that? And what was your relationship with it like, being on your own with it for seven years?
AT: I can say it’s a love-hate relationship.
It’s a machine. It’s in different dimensions. It’s a machine, many machines. It’s a system.
Chatroulette is also its users. All their personalities is the personality—is Chatroulette. Tends to be not so nice, sometimes. Yeah, actually, it’s users. In the end, it’s all users. It’s all users.
User generated content is both a problem and a blessing because people made amazing content. Funny people who make other people happy—this is really super good. But there is opposite end of the spectrum. Inappropriate content problem. It’s anonymous.
People can do what they want. You’re at the mercy of whatever other person wants to do.
GP: Right. Chatroulette pretty quickly got a reputation for just being used for uh, adult purposes.
So just to be clear you think people using Chatroulette for that is like, a no? Not good, as far as you’re concerned?
AT: It’s a problem, in my view. Adult content problem. One million users a month and you have thousands of people who do this whatever, things that break rules. Because during development I had to use my own site. I sold 10,000 gigs. I’m personally fed up with that. I had spammers. Porn spam. I had this moment where I was like, if I just relax the whole entire site will be taken over by spammers.
That was one challenge in the project and it all connected to the first problem of, I did not have a team. When dicks started I was embarrassed to ask for help with the business in general. Basically the dick problem was preventing me from assembling a team because I kind of thought OK, it’s not a serious company, cannot be a serious company, anyhow.
I go on my own site and I see dicks, you know, it’s not very inspiring.
GP: A lot of articles from around 2010 when Chatroulette was super popular talk about it being this agent of chaos in the internet that was, at the time, trending towards being more orderly. Like, those articles said social networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace, for instance, they only let you connect with people you already knew. They were more orderly. But Chatroulette was just completely random and chaotic.
AT: Makes me proud. [Laughs]
GP: That was 2010, though. I feel like now it could be argued that on a site like Facebook things are more chaotic, or at least out of control. I’m curious what you think is the most disturbing development that has happened in the social media / internet world in the last ten years?
AT: I think the main topic that you have today in society is the boredom. And we just need to know what we want. What to build, basically. I think everyone’s just bored. And the social media fills the gaps. It’s understandable. I know the game that developers are playing—wow, it’s almost incredible. It’s like mathematical machine of evil. They make sure that you spend the most amount of time on the page.
For example, they’re discovering what shade of blue to use so they divide users into ten groups and give everyone slightly different shade of blue and see which group has most amount of retention. And then cycle repeats. With everything. They are just evolving towards making it most addictive.
Addictiveness is a big problem. And I see it on Chatroulette. The problem is, it’s not easy to make it not addictive because you want users. You want your product to be successful, so you have to make it addictive. This whole addictive nature is incredible because every way you can measure your success of your product—it’s addictiveness. How many users? What’s the attention rate? It’s measured by addictiveness. The way I resolve this cognitive dissonance is by saying, “OK you just have to make it addictive, that’s the only way to succeed, but you have to make it good because then they’re addicted to something good at least.” Everything is a digital drug. I don’t see a way to stop it.
It’s mathematics. There is no way around it, unfortunately. Either the site grows or dies and to grow you have to use these methods. That’s why if you’re a smart developer you put a prompt, “Are you sure you want to exit?” Make the exit button smaller and stuff, god damn it.
But then maybe it’s ok. You just have to know what you’re actually making people do…But users have no chance. The users have no agency. There’s no chance. If you go on YouTube there is no way you have agency. The machine learning algorithm will give you the videos you are most likely going to watch. Basically with a digital drug, you have to be wary.
We are kind of lost. Users and developers are kind of like, we don’t know what we want anymore. Also developers, I don’t trust them hundred percent. Because for them users is just traffic, you know, just numbers, so.
Try to contact Google. They’ll give you a robot response. That shows their attitudes, actually.
That’s why I like hackers. Because hackers can really bust the egos of developers. Because developers think they’re so smart and hackers can fuck everything up.
GP: I read somewhere that you were a hacker when you were a teenager, before Chatroulette.
AT: Yeah. Now the fun I’m doing, I found this programmatic way to send SMS verification codes and it’s basically a protocol. I have, I can fuck with the phone system. Basically what I did, you can send a text message from any phone number to any phone number. It’s amazing pranking, and I was sending—it’s so funny—you can call people from any phone numbers. I send to my friend a text message, TransferWise. It’s like a bank and I know my friend was using that, and I sent him a text message from TransferWise saying, “Your $40,000 wire transfer to Romanian National Bank has completed.” [Laughing.] And it’s just crazy. It’s all system.
GP: Did you prank the Chatroulette users? “The dicks?”
AT: Long time ago I put their picture. “You’re banned and here’s your picture.” [Laughing hysterically] People were using it from college dorms, where a bunch of people in the building have the same IP address they all see it. “You’re banned!” Somebody went Chatroulette from work, say, and work has all same IP address. I put picture.
One thing I had was community service. If they wanted to be unbanned, they should snitch on other dicks. “If you help me to find other dicks, you will be granted pardon.” It’s basically the same principle of how governments contract with drug dealers. I had maybe hundreds volunteers— I called them volunteers! [BUSTS UP LAUGHING]
I put a fax number in there at some point. The fax is amazing torture. Say, “Yeah, contact me, here’s my fax number.”
GP: It’s SO ANNOYING.
AT: Yeah, that’s the point. It was good.
GP: How do you feel about Chatroulette’s users in general?
AT: I think every programmer wants his program to work good and users to be happy. So you look at the statistics and see numbers go up, you do something right. If you made it more addictive for them you get happy. I saw it that you can move a button, change color, and the statistics go up so much. It’s amazing this feedback of people. Chatroulette itself is a machine—it’s a community of, it’s like experimental subjects and you get feedback of how well you’ve done. This is very addictive. You get this rush. It’s like a game. It’s like playing Lego, but it is used by a lot of people and also makes money. It’s practical Lego.
It was kind of a problem solving, engineering, learning as well. There’s so many users. You’re not always in control. If the site crashes you just have to bring it up. It’s also amazing. Just amazing. It’s all a challenge. When the site crashed I was like, why it crashed? I’m reading, learning, and then I make it stronger and then fix something else as well.
But I do have to say that I always loved my users. I actually do always love them. I always respected my users. Because what I noticed is other companies in the entertainment sector think users are dumb. “Yay, we’re your friends.” It’s bullshit. All this fake positivity like what Google brings—this fake positivity. It’s almost creepy, actually.
I always respected my users. I approached them as smart people. I’m not trying to manipulate them, pretend to be their friend so they could use my site more. Yeah, I love my users. And I love them for purely egotistical reasons. Because happy users, they tell the site to their friends, they use it more. For pure rational reasons loving users is amazing. You don’t need to love them for big reasons, just love so you can be successful.
GP: During the past ten years running Chatroulette were you thinking much about like, society at large?
AT: No, I actually do not think about people. That’s what I’m learning now, ten years later. For me I was, I think, focused on the game. Just OK, it’s a chat site. I did not care about people. I cared about my users that used my site because they used my products and I wanted to make them happy, my users specifically. But I did not think about society as a whole. Not, “Chatroulette is my gift to the world.” I was not like that.
But now I’m actually feeling it, now I should do something amazing. I’m feeling goosebumps when I think about it. Yeah, Chatroulette is people meeting people. I’m getting goosebumps about.
Maybe I’ll get to that stage where I’m gonna think about people.
This is my challenge now. I already figured out to love users. Now I am trying to love society and use Chatroulette to make society better.
GP: That attitude you describe of, “this is my gift to the world”—there can be some hubris to that attitude that is pretty common in the Silicon Valley tech world. Earlier you said you have problems with authority. Could you say more about that?
AT: Silicon Valley, many people move there because they think it’s like tech mecca. People think [he puts on an American hippie voice accent here] “Yo change the world,” blah blah blah. “Not in it for the money”— that’s the standard. But what they don’t realize is they just moved to a country with one trillion dollars with military budget per year and their quote unquote save the world startup is gonna be feeding that system.
Outside people from other countries who move there I think don’t realize what they’re signing up for. No, Silicon Valley is still part of a larger system—a system that might not have the same value as your little hippie startup.
That’s the whole thing. A scam. That’s like everything. Every place on the Earth carries some kind of cultural stuff from it. There is no place on Earth fully meritocratic. “You come here, work, you are welcome. You just have to be awesome if you live here.” There is no place like this. Everywhere is some bullshit.
I actually want to make my own country. [Laughs]
This is important. When you run an online business, online website, you actually don’t depend on any country at all. You’re so online. You don’t depend on anyone. You sit on your computer, you can do it from anywhere. Digital businesses are completely independent from the real world. When you are online business, for me makes no sense to pay taxes to any country because I can take it to anywhere I want. I can charter a helicopter with whatever supplies I want, it will be still cheaper than paying taxes. If I have my servers on there and everything I have absolute freedom.
What I hate about taxation is not even paying money. I hate the accounting, it’s boring to death. Like, I want to program. Now I can use accountants, it’s actually a lifesaver. But when I was on my own—[brrbrrbrr’s lips, sighs]. Anyway. When you’re on a business it’s forms, more forms, this expense and that expensive. Calculate numbers, god damn it.
When you run online platform there’s only you and your users and government has nothing to do with it. And the government can only create trouble, they can never help, for sure. They can help if you’re a farmer maybe, but if you’re a programmer they can only harm. “Oh yeah yeah did you check whether this blah blah blah?” You know? It’s a headache, right? I never know what people can stream and then somebody might be unhappy about it, some organization or whatever.
Developers make a product but product is in conflict with the law. It’s not even in the sense of like, a real law, nobody’s harmed basically—just some legalization. It happens to everything. File sharing. Cryptocurrency exchanges. For cryptocurrency it’s like, you’re doing “terrorist financing.” You make online platform and you have users on it and the users can do all sorts of things, they can stream content, they can share information, receive information…
People want to do all sorts of things. There’s many, many things. All I’m saying is for the tech people you have no business living with the rest of the world. I have nothing to do with the rest of society.
There is also like, real world. For instance, I live in Switzerland now. At first, for me to even move from Russia it was amazing paperwork, incredible, because blah blah blah, paperwork paperwork paperwork. Now, for instance, for me to hire person I have to have a Visa for the person if it’s outside of Europe. Even opening a bank account was a big deal because to open a bank account you have to have a corporation, it’s like, BLAH, it’s incredible. It’s difficult, even opening a bank account. Anyways. B
asically and then there is all this— ...
I want a fucking country in the ocean. On kind of an oil rig—at the beginning. Because it’s owned by no one, there’s no territory on it. There’s no jurisdiction. It’s completely no man’s land. It’s incredible freedom. I want to be in that country. I want my own country and I want to live on there.
It just goes hand in hand with internet which is also no man’s land. So basically what I’m saying is that I hate authority in general, actually. And I will just love to be in the ocean with my servers. [Laughs.] Absolute independence. Absolute freedom. You have no idea how amazing it will be.
GP: I’ve actually heard of that concept. “Seasteading.” Until you can have your own country what other developments in the internet / tech world that have come up over the past decade are you most excited about?
AT: I love virtual reality. You put the headset on, you see this this whole presence of feeling and depth. When you’re talking to another person on virtual reality it’s a crazy feeling, it’s next level. That’s the future. It’s deep. To me webcams is already the yesterday because it’s 2D, it’s a fucking flat screen on the paper. I’m very excited about virtual reality as something I want to do.
I want a Chatroulette in virtual reality. So that’s what I want to do. I want to do basically Chatroulette in virtual reality—meet strangers in virtual reality. I’m as excited about virtual reality as I was about webcam. You won’t have a dick problem there, that’s a benefit.
GP: Do you ever worry about virtual reality becoming popular and then everybody like, only using virtual reality and just kind of escaping and neglecting the real world?
AT: Firstly, for me, using computer all day, virtual reality would actually be a step up into reality. One of the problems I had as a programmer was when you sit and don’t move for a long time it feels like shit. And that’s the problem. A computer is incompatible with real world, with your body. Virtual reality is more compatible. You can move, you can stand, you can dance, you can walk. It’s so much more natural. You feel your body. I had interactions with people in virtual reality chats. I was talking for real, very interested.
I think there are problems with virtual reality, UX problems. It’s not easy to use it for a long time, you get sick and stuff, but I see potential in it. Notwithstanding general problems with addictiveness. I’d say virtual reality definitely is the future. It’s amazing future. And super cool.
There is this whole apprehension in society about virtual reality. People think it’s creepy, it’s dystopian, but I think that’s narrow mind. They’re like, “Oh I like to go outside,” blah blah blah. I think it’s actually egoistic to say that I prefer outside. That you can go outside, you can think how many people actually make it possible you can go outside. All the cleaners, the police, crowd control, even that you have to fly somewhere to do vacation. Like how much waste, how much waste. And it’s OK to do if we have enough for people, which now we don’t have enough.
People are undernourished and live under $2 a day, or under $10 a day. And most people are wasting their life away doing bullshit when they could be exploring space. They’re basically doing bullshit. Just spending hours of their time to get this wage.
It’s totally fine to me if people just put their headset and go to their shoebox apartment or like, capsule hotel and go have all the entertainment there. So they don’t go buy expensive cars and crash them. All this stuff is ridiculous. All the extreme sports. I understand it’s fun but it’s risky as well. People get injured and somebody has to heal them, treat them.
Virtual reality world is a world you can copy, destroy, add, delete, everything. And you don’t have to build. You’ll eliminate so much resources you can put into medicine, science, helping the poor.
I don’t even know what people do in real life, to be honest. But you don’t need all this stuff, to build buildings, to fly planes, buy planes. Just click a button on virtual reality and boom. It’s efficiency. Think about all the people who can’t move or poor people who can’t travel—about everyone.
Cool if you like your life but what about all the other people, maybe old people who are not so well anymore, kids, or even animals actually. I really want virtual reality for cats. I actually care for animals more than people because they can’t complain, they don’t have a voice at all. The problem is, cats, it’s just boring. If you’re a cat in an apartment, you can’t even catch mice. All you have to do is sleep. Honestly it’s terrible. That’s why virtual reality for cats where a cat could hunt mice, you know, run in the jungle. It’s so important.
GP: What do you think about the idea that the life we’re experiencing here on Earth is a computer simulation?
AT: I would say that’s just another way to describe God. I think it’s just different words to describe ultimately the same concept. There is outer system out there and we are kind of a small bubble in this bigger bubble, essentially.
I guess it’s important for people but for me it’s actually not terribly important. For instance, Chatroulette is hosted on a server and you can technically be God of Chatroulette by logging into the server. But the thing is—there’s no fun. It’s a black screen with console. If you get access to Chatroulette server it’s gonna be very boring experience. Because the actual fun is in the product, on the lower level. And what good does it do me to know there’s outer reality where servers are humming and processing? What good does it do if there’s no fun in there?
From the perspective of developers or God, there is not fun. When you’re actually administrator you’re not fun because there is no challenge, so actually if you are a developer of this system I am actually sorry for you.
The point is: I love my cats. And my cats, I love them in this reality. And I’m sure they’re real in the sense they exist. Even if they’re simulated, I hope they still exist. If I had a choice to go up into the data center but my cats would still be in this world that would be pretty sad.
I don’t think it’s that important whether it’s a simulation because it doesn’t change anything in that sense. Because the feelings are real. The emotions are real. And the consciousness is real. It doesn’t matter where this consciousness is. It’s about consciousness. It’s about us. And that we are here, that’s what is important. And even if it’s all fraud and fake who cares? The people are still real and the animals, they are still real. That’s what’s important.
What really disappoints me is how far away the stars are.
GP: Would you go to Mars?
AT: No. Because there’s nothing. We know what it is. It’s just a piece of rock. I would go there and make selfie and then I would go back to checking news of the world. I wouldn’t care. I can’t really stand behind that cause. I don’t really care about this sending giant rocks into space burning billions of dollars. I don’t understand this, to be honest.
We sent robots. We have soil samples. Pretty boring. No gold there. Not that excited about Mars. I think it’s inefficient use of funds and I think it’s populism. The politicians say, “Yeah space, space,” but again — it’s not space, it’s a piece of rock. And the next cool stuff is like one million years away. I’m not so interested.
There’s a difference between something that’s cool and something that is really cool. Cool is superficial. I think sending giant rockets to space is cool—on superficial level. I stand behind the cause of life extension, personally. Any dollar we can spend towards that is more important than dollars we could spend burning fuel to go to Mars. I mean, honestly just give money to scientists, they’ll figure out what to do, if you have excess money.
GP: What’s next for Chatroulette? Do you have ideas for how you are going to go forward from this surge of increased popularity?
AT: I would say actually the first answer is, I don’t know. And that in itself is kind of an achievement because it kind of makes me open to whatever. Makes me more open to ideas. I don’t know, and that’s in itself kind of liberating. Because I used to know, and now I don’t know, and yet it feels more clear for me in that sense. I know that I know nothing.
I just have this asset in my hands, this Chatroulette. People want something, apparently they like Chatroulette. They’re meeting people, apparently meeting people is important. I am trying to think honestly what can I do with it?
I want to do something, you know, something cool and big, and something that is good for the world blah blah blah and whole nine yards. That’s main thing I want to do. It’s gonna be amazing. I’m really happy. I feel like I can do something cool. I’m just bored. I’m bored to death, actually. And I want to just do big things.
Subscribe to get your daily round-up of top tech stories!