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Budist, the Russian Chatroulette for Wake-up Calls, Is the Only Network that's Actually Social

The biggest innovation in alarm clocks since their invention has to be the slowly-increasing volume option on my phone. Seriously, try going back to your old full-blast alarm and you'll wake up screaming. But all that says it that alarm clocks haven't...

by Derek Mead
Nov 15 2012, 5:20pm

The biggest innovation in alarm clocks since their invention has to be the slowly-increasing volume option on my phone. Seriously, try going back to your old full-blast alarm and you’ll wake up screaming. But all that says it that alarm clocks haven’t exactly been disrupted by the tech biz yet. So why not make them social like everything else?

That’s the idea behind, a Russian social network designed to be Chatroulette for wakeup calls. Started in September 2011, the site already boasts over 700,000 users via a splash page when you first visit the site, and has previously claimed to be growing at a rate of ten percent a week. (That claim, along with the 700,000 number, were both touted earlier this year, so either the splash page is outdated or growth has stalled. My guess is the former, but it’s only a guess.) In June, the site secured $2 million in funding from the Leta Group, a Russian venture capital firm, based on a valuation of $7 million. Now is trying to take the network global.

The concept is fascinating. The moment you wake up, before your brain gets going full speed, is a time when you’re at your most creative and thoughtful, and what better way to put that time to use than chat with a complete stranger? Also, knowing that someone is waiting to chat on the other line might be just enough to get you past that half-awake threshold where you add another hour to the alarm and pass out again.

Budist was rumored to be launching a U.S. arm after winning a number of big startup awards, and Tech Crunch wrote in 2011 that U.S. service, called Wakie, had launched. But as of today, Wakie is still under construction, and the Wakie app in the iTunes store is still in Russian only. So, with an English site still under construction — and the one alternative I can find, Talkoclock, which is shuttered indefinitely because “many elements of our project need to be reconstructed” — I decided to sign up with Budist to see if waking up confused Russians might become my new favorite hobby.

The site welcomes you in with some sort of New Year’s Eve partybot that just screams a happy wakeup. It’s all in Russian, but thankfully Google Translate can work through most stuff. Free, secure, and fun? That’s what I’m talking about. I don’t have a VKontakte) account, so I clicked the green box to sign up. The signup sheets weren’t so easily translated, but thankfully they’re pretty much the same everywhere. For some reason I signed up as “Ted,” don’t ask me why.

The main welcome screen looks like this, with some happy boilerplate from the Budista founder, and four helpful prompts to start new users off. The only one of those I actually understand is is the bit about published conversations. The site records conversations and, if they’re set to be public, allows users to vote, comment on, and favorite them.

In that sense, it’s only a step above Chatroulette as far as interactions are concerned, but it’s still a bit jarring. I remember first seeing a conversation between two people pop up on my Facebook newsfeed, which is always a good reminder that those discussions you have on someone’s profile page aren’t private at all. Here, it’s taken a step further: If you and your partner agree, your actual sleepyhead voices and conversation go out to the whole network for people to judge. By having your voice connected to your profile, it’s just another online anonymity wall broken.

The top bar is relatively self-explanatory: the alarm clock takes you to the alarm setup page, the headphones take you to a page that keeps recordings of your calls (more on that in a bit!), and I’m guessing the letter is for messages. This is supposed to be a social network after all! I happy to see that the clock at the top right automatically set to my local time.

But forget all that noise, I signed up to be woken up. The Budist system is simple: People sign up for a time slot to be woken up, in five minute increments, and altruistic callers sign up on the page pictured above to wake one of them up. When I took the screenshot above, not too many people were waiting to be woken, but you can see that there are two free wakeup slots at 12:30. The guy at 13:10 doesn’t have anyone signed up to wake him yet, and if no one does, he’ll get a call from a robot.

You don’t get any info about who you’re about to call, which I guess makes for more interesting conversation with your random stranger. Actually, now that I think about it, Budist profiles are extremely bare bones, with just names, birthdays, genders, and photos. All your social identity is from your chats, and I guess if you really wanted to learn about someone, you could try to listen to their public conversations, but that somehow feels even more stalker-y than trolling through someone’s Facebook posts. Hearing their actual voice is just so much more personal. So personal, I’ll admit, that I actually felt nervous about having to interact with someone. When’s the last time you felt that on Tumblr?

Because I don’t speak Russian, didn’t understand how phone calls worked, and didn’t want to risk not waking someone, I had someone call me first. The alarm setup system is kinda finicky, but it’s super straightforward. I wasn’t sure how someone would actually call my American cell phone, but when I set up my profile it automatically gave me a cell number field formatted for an American phone, so I figured it would work out. As I’ve since found out, all calls are routed through Budist itself, which users robo-callers to connect wakers and wakees.

It’s all free — as far as I know and have read in what few English accounts I’ve found, we’ll find out at the end of the month — and must be through a VoIP network. I’m not really sure how it all makes money because, at least as far as I’ve seen, Budist doesn’t have any ads. Maybe my bank account is getting drained as we speak.

But what the hell, right? I signed up for a wakeup and received a call from what I thought was a guy, but after trying to explain that I don’t speak English, I realized it was a robot. I think maybe it was there to confirm that my number was correct, but I have no idea. In any case, a few minutes later I got a call from Daria, a 20 year old woman who seemed very confused. I, for one, was about as awkward as can be, so have a laugh at my expense. Sorry for hanging up in shame, Daria!

After receiving such a polite call, I decided to pay it forward and wake someone up with my own shining voice. This time, I came prepared, and wrote out a script on Google Translate that I could have play through my computer speakers. It read “I am American, good morning. I don’t speak Russian, I am sorry. Do you speak English?”

A few minutes before I was given someone to call at 16:30, I got another robocall. It sounded the same as the last one, and so after a bit I hung up. Unlike last time, when a live person’s call followed soon after the robot, this time I was never connected to anyone.

Thinking something screwed up, I signed up again for a slot at 16:35, and once more I got the robocall. This time I was worried it might be a confirmation thing, like “Are you sure you want to wake someone up? Press one if yes,” although I had no idea because it was a grainy robot voice speaking Russian. I pressed one anyway, and got put on hold with lullaby music for a few minutes before I hung up. Once again, I never received a call to wake someone up before the time slot passed.

After those two disappointments, I signed up again for a slot at 16:45. Soon after, I got a text from area code 402 (Nebraska) that read “Ted, cherez 3 minuty vas soedinyat s soney. posle razgovora ne kladite trubku, chtoby razbudit srazu neskolkih son.” Google Translate was no help there, but I think it meant I was about to get a call in three minutes.

And I did! I received a call, and expected it would be the robo-dude again who’d warn me I was about to connect with someone. But no, that wasn’t the case. On the other line was a real, actual woman, who said “Alo?” expectantly. I replied “Alo! Good morning!” and tried to play my script through Google Translate, but accidentally hit the robo-speak button for the English side and freaked out. Eventually I got my little Russian speech to play through my computer speakers, but by then my new Russian friend had sort of laughed and hung up. But why am I telling you about my chat with Alenochka when you can listen to it:

Let me tell you, I felt like a real jackass after that, and nearly gave up. I’m not good at phone calls in the first place, and it took me a fair bit of nerve to just go call some random folks in another country, especially when I feel guilty about totally ruining the spirit of the whole thing. I mean, the point is to wake up and have a nice little chat, not be pestered by some jerk American’s shitty Google Translation.

Budist isn’t a traditional social network, which is why I was so interested in it in the first place. I think “social network” as we think of it is a bit of a misnomer, because they’re very passive. When I post something, I hope someone will find value in it, but if they don’t respond, I’ll never know if they did or not, and they certainly don’t have to. It’s interesting to see link analytics on Twitter; I know people clicked on something I posted, so a social exchange has taken place. But much of the time I’ll never know who did or what they thought.

It’s surprising how accepting of rejection people are in social networks. People spend all day tweeting their thoughts at other folks that will never respond or care, or breathlessly aggregating links and analysis on Facebook that absolutely zero people will engage with. I’m guilty of ignoring people, and I do actually feel bad about that. You probably have too, ignoring someone with 50 followers while clamoring for the attention of someone with 50,000, when both are equally anonymous and only one has even given a hint that they care.

It’s the delusion that powers social media — that what I’m doing matters, or wondering how I can crack some Twitter clique, or worse, that I think that, say, Roger Ebert (I’ve never actually tweeted at him) actually should care about what I have to say.

Being social IRL is much more presumptuous, which I guess is why it’s more stressful. You don’t talk at someone, you say something and expect a response. That can be good or bad, but you’re guaranteed an interaction. It’s always why there are fewer insane outbursts and trolls; a truly social situation, like being at dinner, doesn’t allow for the type of throwaway mindspray that social media does. But the payoff is lower, too. When you find the Best Photo Ever and share it on Reddit, you spend all night refreshing your profile looking for upvotes and approval like an addict. And, like an addict, as the cycle gets more intense — as you increasingly base your self-worth on internet approval — your feeling of self-loathing grows.

Now, that’s not meant to be me complaining about how no one pays attention to my poorly-managed Twitter feed. That would be the meta-Internet equivalent of sulking in a corner at a party, hoping that the cute girl will notice and come over. It can be therapeutic to just fire tweets into the universe, and I’m never going to be the type to stress about how many followers I have. (Maybe I should, so I can be a real hard-hitting e-journalist with serious klout.) I also know that I could probably score retweets from strangers if I stayed on message and gave a fuck.

But in the case of Budist, which is social in a truer sense — you’re forced to make cheery small talk with a stranger — I actually felt like I’d let someone down. That’s not something you feel in other social networks, when you’ve always got the excuse of losing something in your “crazy feed” or blaming your non-response to a message on a faulty app. In this case, I failed. And although rejection from not speaking someone’s language is a little easier to swallow than being rejected for being a terrible person, it’s still more authentically social than a feed of people trying to make themselves look cool.

But after suffering through a few minutes of Motherboard video editor Chris O’Coin laughing at me, I got another call from 780-055-55557, which is Budist’s robo-dialer. It turned out that all those time slots I had signed up for previously and thought hadn’t worked actually had. This time I actually managed to get my script to play, and I couldn’t have been happier. For once, I thought I might have a chance of at least waking someone up with a laugh, and maybe an anecdote — “On Budist today, I was woken up by some American playing a crappy translation!” But 20-year-old Julia just sounded over it:

After that, I got a few more calls from Budist’s robo-dialer, but never got past the robot and the lullaby music. I wonder if I got banned because of terrible reviews from everyone I chatted with. I gave the calls high ratings and favorited them all, but I don’t think any of them returned the sentiment. Maybe I should have put “Good morning!” in front of “I’m American” in my script. I wonder if I should just keep trying. I also wonder how much this is going to cost me. But I have learned one thing: I fucking suck at waking up Russians.

Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.