Net-repreneurs Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning — best known as the kids who invented Napster in the ’90s — revealed their latest creation on June 5, a Facebook app cum video social network called Airtime. In a technical-gaffe-laden media launch event in New York, a string of celebrities (Olivia Munn, Joel McHale, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Ed Helms, Jim Carrey, among others) played along as video chats failed, PCs rebooted, and an exasperated Parker shook his head — as any vet of tech launches knows, these things happen to the best of them.
After an extended intro from Jimmy Fallon, Parker took the mic and presented a compelling — if business pitch-like — slideshow stack, explaining the inspiration and rationale for their new product. Available now, Airtime is video chat built into Facebook that allows you to click on any of your connected friends from a list at the side of the screen and chat with them via web browser, with no extra software to install. While you are chatting, you can browse, share, or take items from”interests” fields, as well as videos you have “liked” and similar items from your profile (crucially, not music, though surely that’s not far off). The idea, Parker stressed, is that you’re experiencing shared content together at the same time, rather than most social network activities like commenting on posts or playing games, where the interaction is delayed as someone posts something and everyone else consumes it later.
The app also connects like-minded strangers based on profile information, activities, and interactions on Facebook. At the start of a chat, your name and location are anonymous, and you can choose to limit or hide your interests as well. Parker described safety features, including software that flags inappropriate chats or alerts human moderator who see snapshots and determine if the chat should be stopped. (A chat with an engineer afterward confirms that showing too much skin, or not enough of your face, or sudden camera moves southbound, throw up red flags.) Though we’re not sure which is worse: being flashed by a stranger, or having a computer or a moderator monitor private conversations….
There’s a case to be made for video chat built into Facebook, and Airtime will likely go viral in the coming weeks. And while we’re confident it will also be exploited for some creative uses or memes-in-the-making beyond what Parker or Fanning or anyone else has planned, we’re not so sure yet that the creative explosion that Parker claims will happen between strangers is in the books. All it will take is a single warning from moderators to creep out users and scare them away from the service (and onto Skype, or Facetime, or iChat, or AIM or any one of dozens of other video chat services, apps and clients that maintain your privacy). And other than the novelty of chatting with strangers once or twice, who has the energy or interest to do it often?
When asked what his expectations for his newest baby were, Parker was blunt. “This is a wait-and-see kind of thing,” he said. “Ultimately it’s about the network of users, not the product itself, so the value of this thing won’t be clear until the network has time to grow.” Those are cautious words from a guy who has been behind the launches of Napster, Facebook, and Spotify.