Prince was stuck at home, days into the most recent Covid-19 lockdown in Istanbul, when he decided to open Azar, a South Korean “social discovery” app that resembles Chatroulette. “My friend told me I could meet girls on here, but I’m not really looking for that,” he said after matching randomly with a Rest of World reporter in April. “I thought, let me see if I can just have fun and chat with people.”
Prince, who asked to be identified by only his first name for privacy reasons, is one of the estimated 40.7 million people who installed Azar in 2020, according to the market research firm Sensor Tower, about double the number who downloaded Tinder in the U.S. that year. The app puts users on selfie mode and lets them swipe through a carousel of video calls with people from around the world. In February, the online dating giant Match Group announced it would acquire Azar’s parent company, Hyperconnect, for $1.7 billion — its largest acquisition ever.
A professional football player originally from Ghana, Prince immigrated to Turkey two years ago to join a local team. But when the league placed restrictions on foreign footballers last spring, and the country went into lockdown, he found himself working odd jobs to make money and hunkering down in a city far from home. During the pandemic, users like Prince say they’ve turned to Azar in the hopes of curing boredom and loneliness by chatting with strangers they will likely never meet.
“If Azar is providing a solution for lonely people that are looking for someone to talk with, then it definitely goes beyond a local search service,” said Niloofar Abolfathi, a visiting business professor at the National University of Singapore, who has researched the dating app industry. “It’ll be interesting to see how the market will evolve and whether people are going to start seeing [dating apps] as a broader concept.”
Launched in 2014, Azar essentially took the video cam sites of the mid-aughts — think Omegle and Chatroulette — and built a fully formed app ecosystem on top. The platform uses a proprietary algorithm to make video matches, which takes into consideration your hobbies and language preferences, according to Hyperconnect spokesperson James Kang. “It’s different from a dating app, in which you are only communicating with a desired gender for dating purposes and, typically, to meet offline,” he said. “Azar can be used for making friends from around the world regardless of gender and age, sharing daily life and interests and hobbies, and studying languages.”
Most of the cam websites of yesteryear earned reputations for being overrun with nudity and sexual propositions. Azar has taken several steps to avoid a similar fate. Because it’s an app rather than a website, it benefits from tying users to their smartphones, making it harder for banned accounts to come back online under new names. The company says it also uses artificial intelligence to moderate inappropriate content and allows users to easily report violations themselves. Still, you don’t need to use Azar for long to realize that plenty of people are there to sext, and violators of the platform’s nudity and hate speech policies can slip through the cracks.
Prince said men and women have flashed him on the app, and he’s also been called racist insults and epithets by other users. The harassment was enough that he decided to take a break from Azar last year, before picking it up again during lockdown. “My friend told me they have new features now and have improved. So I said, I still have it on my phone, let me check it out,” he said.
Despite the challenges associated with live video moderation, Azar has continued attracting new users and revenue. In 2020, it earned the sixth highest revenue among non-gaming apps in Europe, according to Sensor Tower. Hyperconnect, which also owns the video and audio chat app Hakuna Live, reported earning more than $200 million last year, a 50% jump from 2019.
Much of that revenue is likely driven by in-app purchases. When users tap through Azar, they’re greeted by a barrage of prompts encouraging them to buy Gems — tokens used to acquire everything from stickers and virtual gifts to extra daily matches. Users can also pay $14.99 to gain “VIP” status, which allows them to narrow matches down according to stated gender and country (the cost may vary in different markets).
If you don’t pay for those add-ons, you’ll easily find yourself chatting with someone on another continent. Prince said that, aside from people in Turkey, he’s spoken to users in Hong Kong, Thailand, India, and France. Part of the novelty of Azar is the ability to flirt across borders: The app has embedded Google Translate’s API, which allows speakers of different languages to send translated messages in real time.
“Spending time on Azar is [a way of] coping with stress for me, as I’m in the middle of finishing my thesis,” said Ulfa, a graduate student from Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province, who heard about the app from a close friend and asked to use only her first name for privacy reasons. She’s rarely connected with other users in Indonesia, talking instead to foreigners who help her practice English. “Most of the users on live video here are Turkish men,” she said.
Hyperconnect is based in Seoul, but 99% of Azar’s user base is outside of South Korea, according to the company. That makes the app one of only a few Korean social media platforms to prioritize international users. While official demographics are not publicly available, the app’s public marketing campaigns, interviews with users, and hours spent on the platform suggest some of Azar’s main markets include Turkey, India, the Gulf states, and Southeast Asia.
On YouTube, for example, Azar’s official channel has published dozens of promotional videos in Turkish, including one that garnered more than 38 million views. Notably missing from the global pool of conversation candidates are people from Match Group’s home turf in North America — Ulfa said she’s never spoken to a user in the U.S., even though the app is available there.
In the last two years, Match Group has made efforts to reach more users abroad. In 2019, the company announced it would hire 40% more employees in Asia. The hiring spree coincided with the launch of localized marketing campaigns in Korea and India, the opening of a new office in Jakarta and Seoul, and the appointment of devoted leadership for its Middle East and Asia operations. “With more than 400 million singles outside of North America and Europe, two-thirds have not yet tried a dating product,” the company said in a press release at the time.
Match Group has a history of aggressively buying up its competitors, most famously Tinder and Hinge (it also tried and failed to acquire Bumble). Still, it’s not clear exactly how a “social discovery” app might factor into the company’s long-term ambitions. Match declined to answer questions about the acquisition and pointed to its official press release.
Bringing apps originally built for American users to local dating cultures in Asia and the Middle East has been a challenge for Match Group. “There is still a stigma [with] online dating in Asian markets in relative terms, compared to, for example, a market like the U.S.,” said Abolfathi, the business professor. Azar, though, may provide one way to circumvent that problem.
Many people don’t want to say they’ve met their partner on a dating app, Abolfathi explained, but something like Azar might not have the same negative association, since it’s not really akin to, say, Tinder. “Going beyond dating and trying to frame it as a platform for conversations with another person may be a way to convert noncustomers to customers in the Asian market,” she said.
Ulfa herself shies away from calling Azar a dating app. “I don’t know, it’s just like talking to people, and all of them are men,” she explained. “If the conversation is really going well, it may go further than friendship. I can’t trust people easily on here; it’s more like they talk sweet to me, or they just flirt.”