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First impressions of Shaker, a reinvented chatroom for the Facebook age

Nine months after its TechCrunch Disrupt 2011 win, Shaker, an avatar-based social chatting platform, launched on June 7. While last year we were skeptical about the site, we decided to test it out on its launch date and join in on the fun. As an added bonus, the band Far East Movement was set to make an hour-long appearance to hang out with the Shaker crowd.

Upon entering Club53, a late-night virtual rendezvous that opens every night at 7:53 PST / 10:53 EST, we were introduced to a kitschy room packed with curious technologists, agency-minded users and music lovers. The ambiance of the room was relaxed, and more importantly the crowds mingling for discussions were approachable. At a bar in real life, a crowd of 10 people may be the last group you’d approach, but the avatars help to get rid of this psychological barrier. It feels like joining just another chat room, although the number of people you can chat with at one time is restricted to a dozen users.

Since its private beta, it was evident that the platform, on the server side, had been fine tuned in preparation for its launch. We thankfully didn’t run into any issues with its instability, despite the packed room. Its user experience on the other hand, appeared to have few if any visible changes. Users can still send virtually purchased drinks, and command the avatar to dance.

Common connections vs. Similar interests

far east movement chatting

Because you’re required to log into with a Facebook account, Facebook’s Open Graph enables Shaker to pull favorite movies, music, where you’ve worked, what school you’ve attended, and just about any information that users may be able to use in an effort to get to know you better. But the expectation that conversations will be spurred by two user’s Facebook interest in Maroon 5 is a superficial presumption. We found few if any users were compelled to chat based on similar interests.

Upon entering the room, you’ll be surprised at just how many people you’ll share a common connection with. Avatars are even color coded as a way to entice users to connect with complete strangers.

Shaker co-founder Gad Maor explained the system. “The first thing that matters for us is the friend-of-a-friend connection. That’s why you see the different colors,” Maor said. “As the tutorial explains to users, avatars highlighted in blue are friends, while those that are highlighted in yellow are individuals with whom users will have a common connection with. Everyone else is in gray.”

Clearing up Shaker’s misconceptions

There were a few pieces of feedback that seemed to echo during the discussions throughout the night. First, users were bummed that they were unable to DJ the music for the room. Second, Shaker participants were under the impression that the platform was a competitor to Turntable.fm. But, you couldn’t blame them for the association. Music is a core feature in the platform; Bandpage, Vevo and Soundcloud are apparent Shaker partners, as their logos in poster form were plastered throughout the digital venue. Adding to this, a mainstream band, Far East Movement, would also make an appearance.

Gad clarified this misconception. “I don’t see Turntable as a competitor. [Shaker] is reinventing chatrooms in a way where identities play a bigger role.” Gia said. “Here the roles are different. Shaker is a place where communities gather so the roles are not ‘DJ’ but rather ‘Hosts’ of meetups.”

In other words, Shaker is bringing community-oriented platforms that allow for real life gatherings, like Meetup.com, into virtual form. “We are doing it selectively. But yes, we will give communities a place online.”

Music, on the other hand, is a niche that can help grow its user base quickly. While it’s unlikely that DJing will be a feature any time soon, Shaker will be hosting several bands each week and users can RSVP to the events on Shaker’s homepage.

Far East Movement’s Shaker debut

far east movement entrance on shaker

Far East Movement’s participation was punctual, but disappointing. Despite spending one hour in the room, the group’s music blaring in the background for the full hour, and throngs of users gathering around to chat with each member of the four-piece outfit, their responses were kept to a few words and minimal interaction. When we asked Kevin Nishimura of Far East Movement about his thoughts on Shaker, he simply told us, “Shaker is dope.” You could tell that the band just wanted to get in and get out, and some fans took notice. “They only seem to approach girls,” one female user told me. “Maybe that’s why they approached me.”

While we can confidently say that Far East Movement’s presence in the room did little to stir up excitement, we’re hoping that this is just an isolated case. If we’ve learned anything from Airtime’s debut, a celebrity’s presence may not compel users to flock to the service.

Accountability for rogue users

If Chatroulette is any indication of the perils of conversing with strangers, you’d know that it’s easy for a start-up to fall into the trap of attracting the wrong users, particularly those who intend to undermine the platform and its community. Even on opening night, one user couldn’t help posting links to porn. As Shaker’s user base begins to inevitably grow, it will need to be accountable for the potential legal headaches that may arise from the action of its users.

Monetizing Shaker

far east movement

Shaker has a number of ways to monetize the platform.

In-app purchases – Buying yourself or other users drinks comes at the cost of using your virtual currency, and other in-app purchases are soon to follow. We could see Bacardi or Smirnoff making it onto the virtual drink menu, and Prada or The Gap offering a wardrobe for avatars.

Advertising – We noticed that the posters would change images between its participating partners, but the same space could easily be used for advertising. Vevo’s music videos were also pulled from YouTube, playing behind the stage during Far East Movement’s guest appearance.

Music purchases –  Shaker was built with musician and music discovery in mind. For instance, an open guitar case served as a “tip” box (still in development), a feature that encourages users to tip the artists of the music playing in the background. Shaker has included a universal music player, and accompanying buttons to help find information about the featured artists by linking directly to the band’s Facebook page. We could easily see such features incorporate an iTunes affiliate program.

Tickets – Knowing Shaker’s intent to create a place where communities can gather, we wouldn’t be surprised to see a promoters or event hosts selling tickets to private networking opportunities or concerts.

Final thoughts

The experience overall ended on a positive note, and it was fun to be able to hang out and meet new people, including Robert Scoble, J.Sider of Bandpage, and a software engineer from Airtime. While it has minor kinks, this is one social platform that we’re expecting will catch steam. Until then, it will be an interesting couple of months to observe how the Shaker team iterates based on user feedback while branding itself more in the likeness of Meetup.com than Turntable.fm.