As the spotlight beams brightly on ChatRoulette and its attendant lumps, humps, and hairy backs, there is another, more wholesome, site that's just debuted. It promises all the thrill of videochatting with strangers with the protection that comes from limiting the audience to college coeds in possession of an .edu email address. Behold RandomDorm.com.
How It Started
RandomDorm.com grew out of another recently launched site that cheekily claims to "connect student bodies." Called GoodCrush, the concept is the brainchild of Josh Weinstein, a recent Princeton grad who appears to have had a Newton's apple moment, romance version 2.0.
"During my sophomore year an idea hit me--there needs to be an easy way to offer my peers (read: myself) a risk-free way of expressing a crush wherein their (my) identity is only revealed if there's a match," explains Weinstein. Enter the Crush Finder.
The utility was simple: Enter the names of five people you've got a crush on and the Finder lets them know. If they've input your name too, it's a "Good Crush." "Then you two live happily ever after--or at least for a few days," Weinstein says. If there's no match, the crusher's identity remains a secret. Period.
The site was so popular at Princeton that within one 24 hour period 30% of said "student bodies" were connecting. Now a month after the site officially launched beyond the hallowed halls of Princeton, Weinstein says they’ve received over 12,000 user signups at over a dozen schools across the country.
Weinstein says the chat component was always part of GoodCrush's overall concept, and right now he sees RandomDorm as "a cool, fun way to bring college students together without a romantic focus." The similarity to ChatRoulette ends with enabling person-to-person video interactions via two windows on the screen. RandomDorm is supposed to reduce (ahem) inappropriate conduct, if not prevent it altogether, he says.
How it Works
RandomDorm is a gated community (albeit one with a South Park-like background image), with a login wall of protection. The secret password is that college email address which can be typed in directly, or can be accessed through Facebook if the user's FB account is under an .edu email (another shared trait with Facebook's early incarnation). Once in, the fun (supposedly) begins.
To test out this thing, Fast Company dispatched our .edu email-using intrepid intern Austin Carr, who ventured into the outback of RandomDorm's unchartered territory Thursday evening. He found it ... almost empty. He did notice that unlike ChatRoulette, users have the option to narrow down potential partners to girls, guys, or both--the assumption, which is a bit closed-minded, is that girls are looking for guys and vice versa (isn't college the time of experimentation?). There's even a "cool people only" option, though it's unclear how the site vets the coolness factor.
Here's Austin's experience, in his own words:
First off, you'll have trouble finding anybody, and unfortunately, there's no automated Next feature--you have to click Next each frickin' time, even when it can't find anybody! And believe me, there's nobody on this service. Get used to clicking Next, Next, Next.
Don't try searching for girls, cause you won't find any. You're constantly presented with this message: "All users are currently engaged in sessions. Hit NEXT to try again." Click Next again, see the same message again. Over and over. Nobody. No chicks man! What gives! What did I go to college for!? Switching to "Both," I got the following message: "Found somebody!" Trying to connect you to a partner. After 20 seconds: "Could not connect to your partner. She or he might have left." Such a tease! That exclamatory "found somebody" after minutes of searching can seem like a miracle. But alas, nobody’s there, and I have to hit Next. Again.
(I’m basically nexting myself at this point.)
Plus, during those 20 seconds, the Next button is gray-ed out – you can’t even click Next, you have to wait those painful 20 seconds while, I guess, the service figures out that nobody's on the other end.
So I finally went for "guys." Cha-ching! "You are connected. Chat along!" Sweet, finally, here's where everyone was hiding. All the guys looking for non-existent girls. You can tell this is legitimately a dorm-room service by the solitary confinement lighting and white walls--heck, you can even see the occasional university banner in the background.Of course, these dudes instantly nexted me. But no matter: I connected with them two seconds later, then they nexted me, then we connected…then again…then again…then again. It was like a game of peek-a-boo. We couldn't NOT connect to one another. We were the only ones on the service.
After, like, the 12th time of seeing these two dudes on the service, I finally flagged them down before they Nexted me. Here's our brief convo (before they Next-ed me again, and then, predictably, reconnected again…I mean, they just didn’t get it):
23:33:48> You: quick question
23:33:59> You: i'm doing a small story on chat roulette vs random dorm
23:34:03> You: this service seems to suck
23:34:09> You: has that been your general experience?
23:34:19> You: have you been able to see one girl so far?
23:34:20> Partner: Not enough dicks!
23:34:23> You: ha, right
23:34:26> You: i'll quote you on that
23:34:34> Partner: NOTENOUGHDICKS
The problem is that right now, there are too few users and those that are on are seeking something more. It removes the best part of ChatRoulette: to leap into the foggy abyss of video-chat and experience micro-interactions with mostly naked men and your occasional blurry-hooded figure.
How It Makes Money
Weinstein is, nonetheless, cheerfully upbeat and focusing on the positive. "I see a huge opportunity by both connecting students--who are experiencing and contemplating similar issues, questions, social lives, opportunities and coursework--as well as potentially creating an international college video pen pal program."
It's too early to tell if RandomDorm will morph into a more desirable service but Weinstein's already been able to raise seed funding from FirstMark Capital to launch GoodCrush and is looking for more. That said, GoodCrush itself is still a work in progress and though monetization is on the menu, Weinstein says improving the service must come before implementing potential revenue models. What do those look like? "Potentially premium services and virtual goods."
What About the Competition?
ChatRoulette aside, Weinstein is quick to note that GoodCrush should not be dismissed as just another dating site. "We know first-hand that students are unaccounted for on other dating sites. There is a bit of a stigma associated with students joining prototypical dating sites like Plenty of Fish or eHarmony," he says adding that most students wouldn’t feel comfortable admitting they needed help to find a match.
GoodCrush aims to be much more social, playful, and informal. Adds Weinstein, "Our goal isn’t for users to spend their time on their computer, but rather use our services as a social utility to complement and catalyze off-line activities and opportunities."
The Big Question - Privacy
It’s also hard not to draw parallels to that other (wildly successful) social utility founded by an Ivy League student. Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg's original site, Facemash, had a "Hot or Not" voting function that quickly gained a huge campus following.
Similarly, GoodCrush's voting function has spawned a "Top 10 Most Crushed" which so far seems to be authentic (and rated PG-13). Can GoodCrush prevent users from posting compromising photos of someone else and creating a subset that isn’t all good clean fun? Sure, until it all becomes the next inspiration for a ripped-from-the-headlines episode of Law & Order.
Weinstein maintains the campus approach offers significant privacy. GoodCrush does have several layers of moderation including site administrators and crowdsourcing to let users flag inappropriate content.
GoodCrush also has double-blind messaging in response to missed connections. It’s a feature that Weinstein says would be less appealing if the other individual weren’t a member of your social network or college community. "In addition to the additional privacy, it also increases the excitement of and likelihood of success for missed connections and anonymous matching."
And unlike Zuckerberg’s alleged breach of user privacy when he used Facebook login information to hack into email accounts, Weinstein wants everyone to know that despite being hounded via email, text, and phone, he’s never revealed a the identity of an unrequited crush.
So Who’s Josh's Crush?
That goes for him, too. Though Weinstein is no longer in the target user base, he hasn't gone crushless. "I have a sneaking suspicion that one or two of the missed connections are about me and I have received a few crushes--so there is temptation--everyone always wants to know who their secret admirer is!"
Austin Carr contributed to this report.