Social Media Chats About Specific Topics, In Search Of A Critical Mass


Sometimes friends are just not enough. While Facebook's primary appeal has been to build social communities of people within less than six degrees of separation, up pops another that believes you need to reach out further - specifically, to strangers. This new wrinkle, ironed out by AnybodyOutThere (not to be confused with Pink Floyd's 1980's pop hit) is sometimes you to need to connect with random people to get answers on specific-topics. Such is the premise of their online chat site.

Differing from social networks, you can utilize the chat features at without having to become a bonafide member. Guests are welcome to test the site. Algorithms have been developed to address topics of interest and those folks that want to spend some time discussing them with other like-minded people. Not to be confused or categorized as just another Q&A site like Quora, AOT is not a "repository of human knowledge."

In an interview conducted with co-founder and CEO Daniel Sagis, he noted that dissimilar to Quora and Convore developed by "Silicon Valley stars"…(his company) has had "to adopt to a more grassroots approach" to promote and build a user base.

Presently at only 40,000 users globally (67 % in the US & Canada), the challenge for this start-up is acquiring the critical mass that's going to make all the pieces fall in place on a consistent basis. Without a critical mass (say in the millions), while users can pose questions or enter topics to discuss with others, sometimes you will come up empty. Either no one is interested or they have misinterpreted your topic request. More than once, when I tried, responses were often off-topic.

So how does a young start-up in a space that's incurred some negative press by the likes of Chatroulette develop into a meaningful exchange platform for informative dialogue. The "Catch 22" is trying to scale so that the numbers work in their favor, prior to users dropping off because their engagements did not prove fruitful.

Sagis addresses the paradox as such:

"Critical Mass is everything to us at this stage and we've been working hard on our user interface to make those that have discovered our site have a great first experience. We have a PR strategy in place and are working on several projects to boost recognition and thus user numbers. Since we launched five weeks ago we've seen our numbers double. We've also seen a steady stream of media coverage and hope to see that increase and grow.  One other thing we are doing to solve the critical mass problem is working to prolong user's "online" time. 

Tel Aviv has proven to be a melting pot for new hi-tech start-ups. Rounds which is a online chat competitor of AOT has been out of beta for a longer period of time.  Sagis notes the distinction between the two services: "Rounds is game-based and more about sharing an activity experience or a "round," (where) AOT is focused on in-depth topic-based chat."

In addition to considering potential collaboration with Rounds and opening up distribution channels with IM services such as Facebook Chat, Sagis also indicates they are currently in talks with a major Internet company for a deeper integration, but is not at liberty to disclose at this time.

While video is on the boards as a future feature, AOT wants to be careful not to tread in the same 'prurient' waters as Chatroulette. "We invested a lot of time into creating algorithms that will segment out users looking to discuss sex by searching for key words and patterns of conversation that would indicate someone interested in this type of conversation," noted Sagis. "People who are interested in discussing sex or dating are separated out of the main area and are placed into a special dating or private 'talk zone,'" he added.

Those who are frequent IM users will be happy to know they can receive updates regarding their topics of interest via Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger, AIM, Jabber and soon Facebook Chat. "We didn't want people to feel as if they had to be chained to our site in order to receive notification that someone wants to discuss with them - and people already get so many notifications via email that we didn't want them bombarded with chat requests," says Sagis.

For those less inclined to use IM services, AOT is also developing other options for people to use AOT without having to be on the AnybodyOutThere site 24/7.. "Some of those ways involved the big partnership (noted above) and mobile integrations," asserted Sagis. Hopefully that news will be out soon and will assist this platform in scaling to the levels of usage it deserves.