Technology

Growing Pains for Online Video Chat


Seesmic, TokBox, and other startups in this area of social media must contend with issues of personality and, especially, privacy

Turns out, even the most outgoing social media animals get shy once in a while. Tom Sparks can be found just about everywhere on the social Web, with profiles on Twitter, Blip.fm, Tumblr, Flickr (YHOO), Delicious, Last.fm, and more. He aggressively pursues every online chance to find interesting connections and experiences. When he had the chance to try new Web-based video chat tools, Sparks signed up with Seesmic. While it was still in a very early "alpha" test stage, Sparks recorded conversations regularly and responded quickly to other people's videos.

Then something strange happened. Unlike with other social networks, Sparks soon found himself feeling uneasy about the lack of privacy and the pressure to perform. Sure, social media mavens have to produce pithy and useful tweets on Twitter and post attractive photos and witty status updates on Facebook. But it's another thing entirely to speak in front of a Webcam while potentially thousands of strangers watch, judging your looks, delivery, and every gesture. "They cause performance anxiety," Sparks says of video chat sites. "It takes an extrovert personality to be able to do it consistently, and I got tired of it.…My interest fizzled." As blogger Robert Scoble once told me, "You have to be outrageous and over the top." Most people don't have his gargantuan ego.

Ultimately, a good social app is driven by a strong sense of accessibility, simplicity of use, and even privacy. Otherwise users get turned off. That's what happened to Seesmic; it had a hard time retaining early adopters and didn't grow beyond a core user base. Seesmic peaked at 150,000 monthly unique visitors in October 2008 before dropping to its current level of 92,000. Another startup, 12 Seconds, was heralded by tech pundits as the Twitter of video but suffered a similar fate. It's now nothing more than a micro social video community.

Loss of Control

What went wrong? Startups are essentially experiments—works in progress where assumptions are tested on a daily basis. In Seesmic's case, the assumption was that people would be excited to use video. They may be in the future, but not now. People can control their tweets and Facebook posts. Not so with video, says UCLA Internet historian and social media expert Brad Fidler. "Putting yourself on video is a major thing," Fidler says. "Most people don't want their faces on video when they don't get to control their own content." Seesmic users had a greater sense of security when the site was in test mode, he explains. "It was protected and everyone got to know each other and they felt safe," Fidler says. "Once Seesmic went public, that was not there anymore."

We give up some anonymity when we use the social Web, but many people aren't willing to give it up quite so completely. "Anonymity allows greater freedom because there are things you don't want your employer or family to know about," says Amanda Lenhart, an analyst at the the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "People have public and private personalities, and video sites take that away." On Facebook, for instance, users still control the content and how it's used, tagged, and distributed. "With text and photos we can create an image we like and want to present to the outside world, but video makes that difficult to accomplish," Lenhart says. "The way you come across on video also depends on the quality—the ambient light and how you display yourself."

Video also lends itself to more extroverted personalities, Lenhart says. "It also includes your voice and mannerism and this requires a bold personality," she notes. "Not everyone is charismatic enough to pull it off and most people have limits as to what they want to expose in public." This is evident on both Seesmic and 12 Seconds, where certain individuals dominate the public conversation.

Promoting "Personality"

While we can't blame the video sites for the human banality and narcissism we encounter in their public video streams, they do deserve some blame for promoting it. For example, Seesmic founder Loic Le Meur tried to control the conversation flow by introducing provocative topics and hosting celebrity guests like Deepak Chopra and Paulo Coelho. It was a costly gimmick that wasted VC money, yielded poor results, and baffled many users. "They wanted to shape the conversation flow," Fidler says. "That clearly backfired on them.…You can't force people to open up to strangers." The folks at 12 Seconds are guilty of similar tactics, enticing users to participate in social karaoke. "12 Seconds was like a comedy show—but then I got tired of trying to be funny and clever," Sparks says.

Seesmic seems to have gotten the message, giving users more ways to protect their privacy. "As a company we had to change focus," Le Meur says. "We understood that people didn't want to share with strangers and they wanted more privacy.…Now, instead of telling people to join the Seesmic community, we tell them to share with your community." Seesmic is also putting more energy into what it calls Seesmic Desktop, a tool that lets users more easily post and share video. "We have three years of funding," Le Meur adds. "So we'll wait for video to take off."

For some, the wait may not be so long. One of my favorite video chat sites is TokBox. With more than 180,000 unique monthly visitors, TokBox has achieved some success with a straightforward interface that lets you manage private and public video chats with relative ease. If you want to chat with another member just push the "Talk" button and you're connected. If you want to invite someone who is not a member, TokBox lets you create a video chat channel and give unregistered users entry through a private link.

TinyChat's Impressive

But the most exciting new player in my view is TinyChat, a cool startup launching later this month that offers video and text chat. TinyChat takes private Web-based video chat to a new level. The Web interface is also the best I've seen so far in terms of simplicity and elegance. "It's completely private and only those who know the link can enter your video chat room," says TinyChat co-founder Daniel Blake. "The app won't save the video conversation unless you decide to save it for future access." In private demos, I was able to talk to up to seven people at once in real time without a glitch and Blake says the app can handle up to 12 people per video chat room. This is a remarkable tool for individuals and small businesses and you can't help but admire the underlying technology.

TinyChat learned from the mistakes of others. It's the advantage of being a small operation—you can take your time focusing on the technology and user experience before trying to figure out a way to make money. Currently, the startup is self-funded. In the future, it may try to make money by selling ads, offering premium services for a fee, or licensing its technology to others, Blake says. "We're ready to experiment with different business models."

I showed TinyChat to Sparks and he too was impressed with the level of privacy and minimalism. "I'm definitely using this when it launches," he says. At the same time, his response was subdued. Having been burned once, he's approaching future video chat sites with caution—an approach likely to be taken by a lot of chat-site users in these early days. That's a challenge Blake is all too willing to face, because in his view, "Video chats are the future."


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