Chatroulette's Less Creepy Offspring

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The idea behind Chatroulette, a once-hot video chatting startup, was simple: people who signed on to the service were randomly matched with other chatters. That's it. You talked with that random person as long as you wanted to, and either party could move on to another randomly matched person at any time.

At first, it seemed like a fascinating way to meet the Internet's anonymous masses. But it got weird, largely thanks to men exposing themselves on camera. The site's unique monthly users dropped from a peak of two million to about 500,000 now.

But now Jenna Wortham brings word of a host of startups that are trying to capture the magic of the site without all the grossness.

But there was something enduring about Chatroulette's mash-up of serendipity and human connections. Now a number of entrepreneurs and Web tinkerers are hoping to spin that concept into business opportunities -- while keeping the creep factor to a minimum.

One of them is Matt Hunter, a 27-year-old software developer in San Francisco who created TextSlide. It matches random users and lets them chat via texting. To protect privacy, the service displays only users' screen names as well as their area codes, which Mr. Hunter hopes can serve as an icebreaker. When they tire of one another or the conversation veers off topic, they can request a new partner.

"I learned a lot from watching that site," Mr. Hunter said of Chatroulette. "There is a desire to connect with someone new in a short-form way, but if you don't give people something to talk about, it quickly devolves into questions about age, sex and location."

Read the full story at the New York Times.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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