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What Chatroulette And Sarah Palin Have In Common

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The seemingly never-ending death spiral of the phenomenon known as Chatroulette took yet another sad 360 with the unveiling via Twitter of a pointless redesign (first noticed Monday night by TechCrunch). The devolution of its brand raises some serious questions social media companies should be asking themselves about the venture’s rise and fall — and parallels that of a certain controversial politician.

Whether the creation of Russian teenager Andrey Ternovskiy is truly over or just in a lull, it’s inarguable that a site once hot enough to top the iPad as the most searched term on Google (NSDQ: GOOG) in 2010 long ago squandered the early buzz it will probably never recover. There goes the chance to launch a brand that many venture capitalists whispered about in the same hushed tones once reserved for Twitter and YouTube.

Debate if you must the many ways Ternovskiy bungled such a golden opportunity, but the consensus can point to one primary problem: The inability of the site to control its users penchant for flashing their private parts in its two-way video world may have been what drew all the attention, but it also killed it. By the time Chatroulette finally got around to genital-detection software–I can’t make this stuff up–potential financiers had already given up on sanitizing the site for mainstream usage.

Which begs a humorous but valid question: Once you get past the genitals, was there really anything to Chatroulette? The site spawned a cottage industry of clones that have tried to steal Ternovskiy’s thunder by taking similar approaches to video chat, and none of them seem to have garnered a fraction of the traction that Chatroulette received.

It’s difficult to believe that prurience was entirely responsible for the site’s appeal; surely the underlying technology has some promise in its own right. And yet it’s amazing that no company big or small in all this time has managed to swoop in and move beyond fringe status to fill this gaping hole that Chatroulette has left in the marketplace.

In that respect, Chatroulette seems similar to Palin (just work with me on this one). What’s oddest about all the media attention attending Sarah Palin is the paradox that lies at its heart. In the same breath that she’s dismissed as a viable candidate for the presidency in 2012, analysts can’t help but stack her up against Obama for no other reason than the absence of any true frontrunning Republican.

Chatroulette has also become a favorite media punching bag, at least in the tech sector. But part of why we can’t stop talking about the site is that no challenger has emerged to usurp it and consequently make us forget it.

As we learned in The Social Network, the first mover has a tremendous advantage online, which may have been why those Winklevoss twins couldn’t get their own venture going in Facebook’s wake. Of course, Facebook really wasn’t a first mover; Friendster and MySpace (NSDQ: NWS) staked pretty big claims in the social networking space before Facebook rose from its college-based niche and cleaned their clocks.

So where is the Facebook equivalent of Chatroulette? Why isn’t Facebook itself the next Chatroulette? Surely someone out there is going to figure out how to tweak Chatroulette’s approach in just the right ways that could give it the long-term viability Ternovskiy so tragically failed to deliver. What’s strange is that it’s taking so long to happen.

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