HowRandom Targets College Students With Website For Anonymous Chats

At a time when Facebook ranks as the most-used social networking site on the planet, a couple of young San Diego entrepreneurs are trying to establish their own niche in an expanding universe of social networks, online chat rooms, and Internet forums.

Co-founders Jon Cook and Jason Humphries have created HowRandom as an online forum that automatically—and randomly—pairs college students so they can chat one-on-one without revealing their personal identities. Cook told me before the holidays that he conceived of as a way to help students connect anonymously to exchange ideas without preconceived notions about appearances, social distinctions, and other social conventions they consider distracting. Cook and Humphries also decided against making it possible for HowRandom users to share their photos, video, and other images.

In other words, HowRandom is a kind of anti-Facebook. The system links together college-age strangers in a secure environment (where protecting privacy appears to be a priority) where they exchange simple text chat messages. All chat information remains private between the two participants, with their respective college or university affiliations being the only identifiers. No information, pictures, or images gets shared beyond that.

Cook, however, says he doesn’t see HowRandom as an anti-Facebook. “I don’t think of HowRandom as a social network,” Cook says. “I think of it as a platform to meet random people. But it’s not a way to keep in touch with your friends. Facebook is a way to keep in touch with your friends. But you can’t make random connections on Facebook.”

Cook said it took the young San Diego entrepreneurs only a few weeks to develop the site, and they have no investors. “We’re just working out of our home. We haven’t spent any money on HowRandom yet.”

Two weeks after taking the website live in November, HowRandom had 6,000 registered users (with verified “.edu” e-mail addresses), Cook says, and the users had exchanged more than 50,000 text messages. The website had about 35,000 visitors last month.

As currently designed, however, it is not possible for two users to re-connect on HowRandom after their online conversation has ended. They could agree during their chat to exchange e-mails or even arrange to become friends on Facebook or another social networking site, Cook says. Having random online conversations is what makes HowRandom something of a social experiment in promoting real-world interactions between two people who might otherwise never meet

Still, HowRandom could evolve in ways that will encourage users to share their personal information themselves. Creating a profile box that attaches to each user, for example, would encourage users to share details about themselves. It also might be possible to enable certain users to re-connect, although Cook says, “We’re still trying to figure out ways to do that. It might be something like adding a ‘friend’ or ‘network’ button that could be used to add someone to a list.”

Asked how the startup will make money, Cook said, “The niche is for college students and we’ll monetize it on that niche.” He said no subscription fees would be imposed to join HowRandom, and the startup does not plan to share its membership list with online marketing firms, at least without first eliminating their personal information.

Cook says he got the idea for HowRandom while he and Humphries were developing Veribu, a South Carolina startup offering a free online communication platform for performing video chats, phone calls, and text messages. “When we first started Veribu, you had to have a “.edu” e-mail address to join, and advertisers really liked that,” Cook explained. As a result, HowRandom encourages users to verify their “.edu” address, which enables the company to show its advertisers where its users are located.

“We’ve already had a few people contact us who want to advertise on our website,” Cook says. In the meantime, Cook is laying out a timeline for HowRandom to visit colleges and universities as a way to expand its subscriber base. For the next year, he says, “It’s pretty simple in terms of where we are and where we want to be.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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