Chatbots Are Friends, Not Foes
Jul 11, 2019
Chatbots Are Friends, Not Foes
They say it’s never too late to make new friends, and in today’s world it can even be done online. The old ethos of ‘don’t talk to strangers online’ has faded into obscurity with the advent of profanity filters, automation, and other checks and balances making it easier and safer to interact online. Rooit is one app utilizing various technologies to create chatrooms for young people to socialize with peers or, depending on the room, find their soulmate. Each chatroom comes equipped with a chatbot, whose role and personality vary based on the room. At the ‘bar’, for example, a chatbot bartender is tasked with pairing up people with similar interests and keeping the conversation flowing with short quizzes and games. Rooit cofounders Paul Hsu and Peter Yu, both formerly employed by a government think tank in their home country of Taiwan, were struck by the stilted conversations and long pauses they experienced at networking events. This prompted them to found Rooit, based on the idea that introducing an element of gamification or a third party in the form of a bot could help smooth over awkward first contact. Users of the app are mostly Gen Zers, but not by design. Rooit COO Elsa Mou says young users turned out to be the most engaged audience, continuing to interact on the app long after older users–the intended audience–dropped it. “Much of [the younger generation’s] communication and interaction is happening online instead of offline,” she says. Rooit’s chatbots, she believes, replicate the presence of a mutual friend playing icebreaker to a conversation. “Paul comes from a Human-Computer Interface (HCI) background, and he believes that the future of human interaction is going to be much more facilitated by bots,” Mou says. Rooit’s chatbot uses feedback and the conversations from each match to improve its selection process, and is able to register abuse and even banter with users. Initially, the Rooit team was concerned that users would feel scrutinized by the chatbots, as they’re a constant presence on the app–even in one-to-one chats. However, they soon realized that adapting to an omnipresent bot was no great challenge for a generation of digital natives. “We actually realized that users are calling our bots more than 100,000 times a day. And that’s out of 20,000 daily active users, so that’s a lot,” says Mou. “Users are calling our chatbot to facilitate conversation once every 10 minutes. We did not expect this number to be so high.”
Rather than viewing the chatbot as an intrusive Big Brother, users are employing it extensively to add interesting new elements to their conversations. Another factor contributing to their enthusiastic adoption of the chat service is that they view Rooit as a ‘safe and trustworthy alternative to other social media platforms’. “On Tinder or Instagram the focus is all about how glamorous a life you live, how great a profile you have,” says Mou. On Rooit, however, all conversations start anonymously, with users only able to view each other’s profiles after the first chat. “We don’t want preconceived judgements, and that really allows users to open up and feel like they are accepted,” she says. Rooit’s popularity with Gen Z has also unearthed interesting insights about the demographic using the app. Across the territories where Rooit is available, the gender ratio and age bracket is almost exactly the same, with 90% of the user base composed of Gen Z and Millennials and a one-to-one ratio of male to female users. More similarities have been discovered on the quirky side. “A lot of our users in Taiwan are training to become nurses, and in Singapore a lot of them are from the military. Despite these differences, their personalities are similar,” Mou says. “They’re slightly on the introverted side and are usually K-pop fans–we have no idea why.”
With a functional and popular chatbot and an engaged user base, one might wonder why Rooit hasn’t become a dating app, but it was ruled out considering the market is saturated with existing products–Paktor, Tinder and Coffee Meets Bagel, to name just a few. Rooit’s competitors include Amino, a community-building app for people with similar interests, but the difference lies in users’ ability to create chatrooms, which Mou perceives as a weakness in quality control. Rooit maintains the number of chatrooms at seven to nine, since past experiences have shown that any number greater or lower than this bracket doesn’t work well. Rooit has monetized their solution through in-app purchases consisting of new games or quizzes to use in conversations. Separately, the app includes conversational advertising, allowing users to engage with brands through messaging them. The team’s belief in ‘chat commerce’ has proved to be an innovative revenue source and allowed the company to position itself as a media company rather than a simple chatbot or messaging app. The app, which is now available in Taiwan, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and the United States, has garnered a loyal user base who react to the intervention of a chatbot with enjoyment rather than distrust. If anything, it’s a testament to the future of communication–a future where we might interact with algorithms as easily as we do with other people.