Culture

Chatroulette swears it's solving its unwanted pervert problem

A decade of dicks later, the social experiment site promises to now offer a less sleazy experience.

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Chatroulette debuted online ten years ago, with a parade of penises not far behind. While initially billing itself as a simple, entertaining means to randomly video call other users, the website quickly devolved — as one might expect of such a service would on the internet — to a cavalcade of sexual harassment, catfishing, and generalized indecency. Although the company's user base ebbed and flowed (mainly ebbed) in the decade since, a year of pandemic-induced isolation has since tripled its traffic from 2019, with nearly 4 million unique visitors per month.

As Wired recently noted, the newfound boon isn't owed to a public yearning for random genitalia, but a better-policed experience thanks to AI trained in identifying skeezy images like... well, you know... like unasked-for dicks.

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Phasing out the phallus — One of the first recent updates implemented at Chatroulette by founder and chairman, Andrey Ternovskiy, was the implementation of two designated channels: the nudity-filtering Random Chat and the as-advertised Unmoderated venue. The site's reps claim the former option is now much better equipped to handle explicit imagery thanks to hiring a company, Hive, specializing in AI programs like content moderation. The machine learning is so good that it is apparently now outperforming its human counterparts.

Hive is “so accurate that using humans in the moderation loop hurts the system’s performance. That is, humans introduce more errors than they remove,” explained former Chatroulette CTO, Andrew Done, to Wired. To do this, Hive employs more than 2 million people in over 100 countries for imagery annotation, which is then fed into its AI software to better beef up its detection capabilities. As Hive's program improves, Chatroulette is apparently planning to phase out its Unmoderated channel by the middle of next year.

Far from perfect — Of course, the truly dedicated jerks among us can still find ways to circumvent Chatroulette's newer screening improvements. Chatroulette's Ternovskiy told Wired "he’s pleased with the improvements in moderation but cautions that some users can evade detection by removing cookies, changing their IP addresses, or violating Chatroulette’s rules between the sampling times."

Although the most recent improvements in machine learning have only recently become available, let's not pretend as though this hasn't been an issue staring the company in the face (literally) for years. Online sexual harassment has pretty much been Chatroulette's defining feature since the beginning, and there has been ample time to try various ways to steer the site away from its lurid subversions. As the vaccine rollout continues and many return to some sense of relative normalcy, it will be interesting to see how, and if, Chatroulette can remain not only relevant, but ethical, in the years to come.