Sunday, April 05, 2009

Crystal ball 2012: The history of stranger chats

It all started in March-April 2009, when the first stranger chat, omegle, gained enough users to become an internet fad. The UI at the time was minimal, it just connected random people to chat with each others. It suffered from many problems: trolls, quick disconnects, drunks, people having different expectations about goals of chatting, etc. Because of these problems, many people didn't yet realize how big thing it was going to be. But some did.

Since many chatters seeked contact with the opposite sex, it was the first market which got split away. In July 2009, Speeddatestrangers.com came online. It filtered chat partners by sex. When the user count increased, it was possible to do more fine-grained filtering by country and age, as large number of users ensured that connect times were reasonable even after filtering most people away. Speeddatestrangers.com also had mail: after disconnecting the chatters could send anonymous private mail to those they really liked, and just as easily ignore private mail from others.

At this time, the movers and shakers of the web industry realized that stranger chats were a natural oligopoly: The more users you have, the heavier filtering you can do, and the better match you get between the conversants. There is room for only a few megachats who can do heavy filtering to match like with like. The big players started to implement their chat engines, but it took years before the effort bore fruit.

1.7.2009 - 31.12.2010 was time when many small stranger chats surfaced and different methods were tried. The major features that developed were:
  • Filtering matches.
  • Soft matching based on optimizing large amount of lesser criteria.
  • Anonymous mail after discussion.
  • Ignore features for excluding creeps and too enthusiastic private mailers.
  • Reputation points. Machine-rated reputation points excluded quick disconnecters and copy-pasters, while peer rating effectively removed overly rude talkers.
  • Option to reveal full identity during chat.
  • Visually themed chats.
Also, specialized chats for specific target audiences mushroomed. The long tail behind the few big filtered megachats surfaced.

Two business models emerged. Big chats brought ad revenue. The second model was to commodize the stranger chat engine. StrangeWays, Inc. and ConnectBox were the biggest players. They started with very simple, omegle-class engines and kept adding features as time passed, copying and integrating the most successful features which surfaced in various stranger chats. StrangeWays was an offshoot from a web design company and it specialized in flash/silverlight clients and visually impressive chats. The revenue came from customization. ConnectBox was easy to install and scaled well, and was the engine of choice for smaller communities. Also open-source chat engine development started, but as always it was years behind the commercial offering.

Just like peer-to-peer networks beat video stores by instant gratification, stranger chats started to beat traditional dating sites when users got fed up with writing 20 mails without a single response. Stranger chats were a way to ensure that the other side was at least minimally interested.

Nowadays, all big dating sites have stranger chats, but true to their roots they are a bit different. Match.com has the biggest user base. The user chooses a set of strict criteria (sex, age, country) and further soft preferences (hair length, eye color, hobbies) from traditional dating criteria. Be2.com also has strict criteria, but it uses keywords in user's profiles to do soft matching. Eharmony.com puts once again quality over quantity: They use exactly the same algorithm to calculate compatability, and the users tell the server how much they are ready to wait. If they are ready to wait 10 minutes, they can expect pretty likeminded company.

All big webhosting companies offer stranger chats as extra service for any customer, just like they have offered web stores for ages. Smaller chats are commodity, and the open-source engines do the basic service well. Some big companies have tried stranger chats to promote common company values, but fears about spreading trade secrets and rumors have made them rare.

Once again the big companies which integrated the new innovation into their basic business model collect the biggest bucks, and a few quick entrepreneurs got rich during the time it took for engine commodization to run its course.

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