Mirrari.com Tries to Break Into the Social Network

A Knoxville startup wants to bring you video chats, without the sleaze

Patrick McCrory and Jeffery Moore are not Mark Zuckerberg. They're just too earnest, too polite, too genuinely aw-shucks milk-and-cookies meet-my-mom-and-dad have-a-seat-why-don't-you nice. Not that Zuckerberg wasn't meek, a dweeb, even. But behind that thin facade of politesse lurked the heart of a mercenary, the soul of a con, and the instincts of a corporate raider.

Zuckerberg, of course, is the controversial founder of Facebook, the online monstrosity that currently holds seemingly all of our society's sensitive personal information within its sinister digital grasp, and the 800-pound gorilla in the chat room when it comes to social networking. That's particularly relevant to McCrory and Moore, as the Knoxville duo have founded their own such site, Mirrari.com. And just as they hope that intellectual property theft and Machiavellian scheming aren't necessary components of shepherding a brand new online social network, so, too, they hope that positioning themselves opposite Facebook, utility-wise, will help their site succeed.

"With Facebook, you have a lot of baggage when you use it," says McCrory, a slender, dark-haired fellow with a perpetual smile. "You have friends you talk to, pages and groups and stuff, and it can't be replicated. If you go to another service they don't let you import all that stuff. You have to make all those connections again, post all your photos again. It locks you in, and that's the network effect. It's actually scary as hell. Facebook has people locked in to the point where there's 500 million people. I can't reasonably see anybody beating them with a comparable, profile-type service."

McCrory and Moore, former East Tennessee State University students, ages 21 and 26, and co-founders of Caspur, Inc., have obviously spent a lot of their time considering the gorilla, and how to avoid its powerful reach. Caspur is the umbrella company for what may one day be a stable of Web-based products and systems, but its current focal point is Mirrari.com, a social networking site with which the duo hope to establish dominance in the relatively wide-open field of random chat.

"There was a site called Chat Roulette that opened last year, and it got really popular really quickly," says McCrory, seated at the oaken kitchen table of his parent's comfy West Knoxville home. "A lot of the tech pundits said it seemed like a really novel idea, kind of a throwback to the older Internet. What I saw of it, though, was that you went on and chatted, and it was like you saw someone you didn't know, didn't know where they were from, and you didn't know how to start a conversation with them. And most of the time it generated ridiculousness and nudity, or something like that. So I felt that though it got a lot of attention, it wasn't really focused on anything. It was completely random."

"It was infamous for nudity," says Moore. A little stockier than McCrory, Moore is also the quieter of the two, and correspondingly unassuming. "The Daily Show and Comedy Central made jokes about it all the time."

After some brainstorming, says McCrory, the two came up with an idea for improving on the Chat Roulette model: random chat that's not quite so random, i.e., topic-based video chat. Further brainstorming produced a broad list of topics—from sports to various academic subjects to film and TV shows to video games to social issues and current events. Topic-based, and flexible, with a system that allows systems manager Moore to quickly and easily add and change subject matter. And a few months ago, Mirrari.com, Caspur's random chat-based social network, went online.

And then all the problems began.

The first and most egregious was the fact that those few early visitors who did come to the site were unable to find chat partners, due to an unforeseen flaw in the system. "So if you went to agricultural science under academic subjects, unless there was someone else there wanting to talk about ag science at the same time as you, you wouldn't ever find a person to talk to," McCrory explains. "We didn't realize how important that was going to be."

But they corrected this flaw in short order, and soon the site was equipped so that Mirrari visitors, upon choosing a topic, were presented with a menu of other options, based on other visitors' selections, within seconds of choosing their own. "So now if you choose ag science, it waits like 10 seconds and then shows you what other people are talking about, other topics you can connect with to find a partner," McCrory says. "All you have to do is click on a second choice. It opens up the site."

Still dissatisfied, the duo have contrived a new system which dispenses with static, pre-selected topics and allows visitors to type in and create their own topics, while still maintaining the "second-option" system to show what other visitors are discussing. Which is all well and good, except that even with their constant innovations, the two have found that visitor counts are still insufficient—primarily due to marketing, or at least a paucity of it.

On paper, things look okay, for a just-started start-up. But in the case of an operation like Mirrari, the key to success is maintaining a consistent, critical mass of visitors.

"With almost any other website, it probably doesn't matter if people are on there simultaneously," Moore says. "But with ours, that's what it relies on. It's a really unique marketing challenge."

As it stands, the tiny Caspur marketing budget is sufficient to keep the Mirrari site rolling as is for some time to come; Mirrari has a few spot ads on borders of the site, McCrory and Moore have some income from day jobs (landscaping and freelance Web design, respectively). But getting more traffic to the site, and maintaining the momentum of that growth, is another story.

Some of their methods are devilishly low-tech. McCrory attended a University of Tennessee home football game, then left after the first quarter, for the sole purpose of chucking a ream of Mirrari leaflets into the crowd. He isn't afraid to use other social media to promote Mirrari, either; he has a group of 100 or so on Facebook. He's working on a Twitter account, and he's also used Chat Roulette. Moore, for his part, has submitted to tech blogs, thus far without success.

And now enter "V," a McCrory family friend who is helping Caspur, Inc. look for potential investors. V has already given the duo advice on their business plan, set some meetings with would-be investors. V's most recent coup is a meeting with former Atlanta Falcons linebacker Will Overstreet, now a Georgia businessman. "As far as our personal funds, we're running dry," McCrory says. "The two of us never had much money in the first place."

While they may be deficient in financing, they do not lack enthusiasm.

"Our idea is to make a social network where we connect people in different ways than just being your ‘friend,'" McCrory says. "Facebook is your social graph, your friends in real life. That's what they try to replicate. What we're doing is almost by definition anonymous. What we're trying to replicate is your interaction with strangers. It's an entirely different sphere of your social life. Like when you ask for directions at a service station, or you overhear something someone else is saying and benefit from it. And the goal is to make these interactions very easy and fluid, with no commitments, unlike a lot of other services."

Another McCrory concept-in-waiting is Caspurmap, sort of like Twitter, only keyed in to online maps. "You could post a message to your location, then anybody who was near you, if they pulled out Caspurmap, could see people's messages in their vicinity, listed from most recent to least recent," McCrory explains.

For the moment, however, Mirrari.com remains priority number one. McCrory says a few other sites are attempting a similar concept, but "they all suck. They're clunky; you can't interact between topics."

"Ultimately, we feel like the world ought to be able to talk about topics really fluidly in this way," McCrory says. "It's like what if you could walk down the street and know what other people's skills sets were, what their interests were? There would be so much benefit to knowing that kind of thing, and we feel the benefits would outweigh any problems."

Problems which might include—as on Chat Roulette and a thousand other sites before—visitors with purely prurient interests.

But Caspur may yet have this solved, too, or so says McCrory. "We have some ideas going forward about how we'll solve those kinds of problems," McCrory says. "But we don't want to release anything just yet, because that would be very big if we could figure that out because that's never really been solved before. And how do you know that? Well, that's a secret. We're Caspur. We've got to keep some of this on the down low."