Chatroulette's Clever Fix, Sympathy for Second Life and Tunisia's Unsocial Revolution

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For most of Chatroulette's short life, vast quantities of unsheathed male members have stood between the video-chat randomizer and big commercial success. At the height of its PR fluffing last year, the Andrey Ternovskiy-founded site had a massive audience but couldn't cash in, because what advertiser wants to fire up the internet and find its brand next to an exposed johnson -- or two? But now Mr. Ternoyskiy has a "solution," laid out brilliantly in a Fast Company piece by Austin Carr.

But Chatroulette can't fully ween [sic] itself off nudity yet. "You'll still see some naked men, about one every hour," Ternovskiy says. Of the roughly 500,000 visitors Chatroulette receives daily, about 10% are males itching to show their business. So Ternovskiy parlays that business into profit.

"Everyday, about 50,000 new men are trying to get naked," he says. "What we're doing is selling the naked men to a couple of websites -- it's an investment for us." When users flag someone enough times for indecent behavior (by clicking a button), the offender is automatically transferred to a partner site. Thanks to deals with adult dating services such as FriendFinder.com, Chatroulette is earning cash hand over fist from the referral traffic.

"Basically, once we detect a person is naked, he'll be kicked from our service to another website," Ternovskiy says. "So, we're actually getting revenue from naked men right now."

A pop up that Chatroulette users would see when they are flagged as inappropriate.
A pop up that Chatroulette users would see when they are flagged as inappropriate.

The first time I used what I'd now refer to as an aggregator was probably in 1999 when I discovered Arts & Letters Daily, a largely image-free, columnar dump of links to brilliant journalism, philosophy, criticism, science writing -- each decked out with an equally brilliant tease. I loved it, but I also forgot about it, as aggregation and its flouncier synonym, curation, became a proper mode of publishing and flashier options abounded. Recently I had returned to ALDaily.com to help source this column, just in time for its founder and editor, Denis Dutton, to pass away. The New York Review of Books' Robert Cottrell penned a wonderful obituary of Dutton, an under-appreciated early thinker on what we now call the social web:

As others have remarked before me, Dutton was, in effect, a master of the tweet long before Twitter was invented. He knew how to capture and project in just a few words, not so much the essence of a story, as the zest or the mystery of it. Really, it was the opposite of precis writing. Having read Dutton's teaser, instead of thinking, "Well, now I know what that's about," your reaction would be, "What on earth is that about?" and you would click dutifully on the "more" link to find out.

For a man of his age and background -- a non-techy, 50-something, university professor -- Dutton was a crucial few years ahead of his time in understanding the internet. He saw its potential as a publishing platform. (He was also an early publisher of e-books.) He anticipated information overload. With ALD, he identified a market for what media people now call "curating," which is to say, selecting and recommending content for a particular audience. All this was at a time when the web was still, by and large, a morass of dial-up connections and bad typography in need of a decent search engine. (In 1998, Google was still in a garage.)

As MySpace, now with half the staff and double the rumors that it will be closed, faces down its own mortality, it's worth thinking about the decline of another mid-decade new-media supernova: Second Life. As he reviews a documentary about that virtual reality, Julian Dibbell unpacks our misconceptions about it and offers a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of how it now fits into our Farmville world:

"Things are real because they're there with us and we believe in them," [founder Philip] Rosedale says in a remarkable moment early in Life 2.0, Jason Spingarn-Koff's 2010 documentary about Second Life. "And if they're simulated on a digital computer versus sort of simulated by atoms and molecules, it doesn't make any difference to us."

This, in its purest form, is the Second Life that blew the media's mind: not an escape from or even an imitation of reality but an expansion of it, potentially suitable for almost any human purpose. But as Life 2.0 testifies, the Second Life that blew the media's mind turns out not to be the Second Life its inhabitants have made. This Second Life -- documented in the film's three in-depth portraits of more or less typical users -- is less transcendent but no less profound. And it's something that can't really be recognized without understanding Second Life to be precisely what we've so often been told it's not: a game.

Tunisia riots
Tunisia riots Credit: AP
Remember that Twitter-inspired pro-democratic revolt in Iran, which, it later became clear, could only really be called that if you consider 60 Twitter feeds operating in country a revolution? Well, there's a little something going on Tunisia that could use some social-media help. Tunisia is huge news today but Ethan Zuckerman, on his blog "My Heart's in Accra," shows how little attention the media has paid over the past few weeks as unrest grew over unemployment and government corruption. That inattention in the mainstream media extended to social:

What's fascinating to me is that the events of the past three weeks in Tunisia might actually represent a "Twitter revolution", as has been previously promised in Moldova and in Iran. There's been virtually no coverage of the riots and protests in the thoroughly compromised local media -- to understand what's going on in their country, many Tunisians are turning to YouTube and DailyMotion videos, to blogs, Twitter and especially Facebook. The government hasn't made it easy to access these sites -- not only are several social-media platforms blocked, they appear to be conducting phishing attacks on users of Gmail, Facebook and other online services. (Slim Amamou reported on this issue for Global Voices Advocacy in July of 2010 but others have picked up the story more recently, as it developed a Wikileaks/Anonymous connection.)

So why isn't the global Twittersphere flooding the internet with cries of "Yezzi Fock!" (the rallying cry of the movement, which translates as "We've had enough!" in local slang)? Perhaps we're less interested because the government in danger of falling isn't communist, as in Moldova, or a nuclear-arm-seeking (perhaps) member of the "Axis of Evil," Iran?

It turns out that there are precisely two types of readers who still write snail-mail letters to magazine editors: the elderly and the incarcerated. In a low-key examination of how the prisoners do it, The New York Times' Jeremy Peters reminds us that even forms we've discarded still have meaning to someone, somewhere:

Many letters are like the ones [frequent Maxim pen pal Mike] Bolick sends: from inmates with plenty of free time asking to meet famous people featured in profiles and photo spreads. But they take on all forms. Some are as simple as an inmate complaining about not receiving his subscription or writing with a change of address. Others are personal reflections on a recent article. Country Weekly regularly receives songs from a prisoner in Texas who has ambitions of being a country star.

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