Plain Text: Typing, Talking and Gawking

At any hour of the day, the equivalent population of a small city is typing, talking and gawking at each other on the online service of New York City-based PalTalk.

I know this because PalTalk recently sent an e-mail asking if it could show me "Why our service is catching on like wildfire in the instant messaging arena." I was curious. America Online, Apple, Yahoo and Microsoft have each signed up millions of users to their ad-supported messaging software. They do much of what PalTalk charges for, at the conveniently low price of absolutely free.

But since 1998, PalTalk has stayed a step ahead of the game, allowing users to combine audio and video conferencing with traditional text messages. Attach a camera and microphone to a PC hooked up to the Internet and you've got a videophone--cutting-edge technology that only feels old because we saw it 40 years ago on "Star Trek" and "The Jetsons."

Chief marketing officer Michael Levit showed me the newest version, PalTalk 8.0, which is available in a beta version at PalTalk.com and will be officially released this month. The updates allow PalTalk to interface with most other instant-messaging services, so you can use it to chat with buddies on AIM or Yahoo Messenger. They also add another subscription tier to the service, PalTalk Extreme. For $60 a year, subscribers not only avoid the ads but also enjoy higher-quality video.

To demonstrate, Levit pinged PalTalk employees around the world. Crisp, clear video images of "Karolyn" in Tasmania, "Swift" in London, "Medianoche" in Mexico and "Storm" in Greece flickered onto my computer screen, filling it like the famous opening of "The Brady Bunch." Though we were all thousands of miles apart, we talked and watched each other in real time. Levit also pinged PalTalk CEO Jason Katz at his summer home in Florida. We could hear something sizzling on the stove behind him as he spoke. "The big guys tend not to innovate," Katz said. "We innovate quickly and are completely focused on this area."

It was definitely cool, but in recent years the larger messaging services have added video chat too. So how does a seven-year-old company with 30 full-time employees manage to survive the wrenching dot-com bust and recruit 3.5 million users to the service?

Levit explained that the core of the service is PalTalk's community. On a typical day, 30,000 users are typing and talking in forums about politics, finance and relationships. Up to 500 users can crowd into a single topic forum at one time. We toured the service and visited discussions about stock trading, dating and language study. "You can find a little bit of almost everything," Levit said.

Everything? Often, recurring events drive users online, he said. A priest delivers a sermon on the service every Sunday and hundreds of users gather to watch and listen. Filmmakers stream their films to their friends. About half of PalTalk's members are American. While there are users from all over the world, the other half is largely concentrated in the Middle East, since a PalTalk partner has aggressively hawked the service in those countries, where phone rates are high and free speech is restricted.

Levit left me with a membership and I downloaded PalTalk at home. That night, I mounted a Web cam on the top of my laptop screen, combed my hair and turned it on.

I surveyed the group listings. A few chat rooms were teaming. Sixty-four members were talking in the "Mainstream Politics" group, 30 were practicing English, another 81 were talking in a day-trading forum. The Middle Eastern groups were all packed but the conversation was mostly in Arabic. In one English-speaking chat room, "2 Faces of Terror--Know Your Enemy," Christians and Muslims unproductively argued the merits of each faith.

The relationship chat rooms appeared to be the busiest; 200 users were gathered in a "Meet New Friends" room. About half had video connections, so I watched stunners from Brazil and fraternity oafs from Iowa spar with each other on my laptop screen. The moderator was acting as a DJ, playing songs from the "Spider-Man 2" soundtrack as folks chatted. The dialogue was both flirtatious and tedious.

Something still didn't add up. PalTalk reported that at that very moment, 20,000 users were online and chatting in 3,000 groups. I wasn't seeing that many members or forums.

I entered a room called "A Friendly 35 and Over: A Nice Place to Be." Two gentlemen, "Gene141" and "Bluto" were competing for the attentions of "Kathy 3706," a demure-looking middle-aged woman wearing a yellow tank top. I introduced myself as a reporter checking out the service and asked them where the real action was.

They told me to disable the adult-content filter on the PalTalk software. Silly me.

I returned to the PalTalk menu screen and turned the adult filter off. Dozens of new chat rooms--crowded with members--appeared on the main menu. Groups with names like "Braless and Busty" and "Hubby's Away, Wives Will Play" bustled with users, many of whom had their Webcams activated and strategically angled lapward.

A fuller description of these chat rooms--and the activities that take place therein--would violate NEWSWEEK's decency standards. Suffice to say that I was shocked, appalled and concerned that my wife would catch me looking at this stuff.

Technology insiders talk about Web 2.0, the flourishing layer of the Internet where users themselves provide the material. Blogs, photo-sharing sites and the home-brewed radio shows called podcasts are the pillars of this wave of grass-roots Internet content that is challenging traditional, professionally produced media. This part of PalTalk is, in a sense, porn podcasting. Webcams, broadband Internet connections and PalTalk's seamless service have combined to allow users to express all their carnal notions to a live, lascivious audience.

The next day, I raised CEO Jason Katz on his PalTalk Webcam. He was back from Florida, sitting in front of open window blinds in PalTalk's offices in midtown Manhattan. I asked him if adult content was driving the expansion of his company, as it fueled the early growth of the Internet. He disagreed, claiming that the porn rooms "are a very small percentage of the business" and that only 5 to 8 percent of users frequent them.

Still, he thought the relationship rooms and flirtatious chatter contribute to his service's basic appeal. PalTalk "is an online bar scene where the whole world can interact," he said. "It's amazing if you think about it. You might come from a small one-horse town and suddenly the entire world is on your computer."

The entire world ... in their skivvies, or less.

Plain Text: Typing, Talking and Gawking | News