Airtime: A Product and an Event

Napster co-founders roll out celebs, run into problems

More than a decade after launching Napster, co-founders Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning rolled out their latest product this morning—the video-chat platform Airtime—and simultaneously hosted a star-press-and-glitch-filled event in New York to hype the service. 

The first thing to know about Airtime is that it’s Facebook video calling meets Chatroulette, except with (supposedly) no penis shots. Users who are logged in to Facebook can access the Airtime Web app and video chat with their Facebook friends, the main difference being that Airtime users can search YouTube and share videos during a chat within the app with both parties watching simultaneously. “Until Airtime that wasn’t possible,” Parker said, adding that while we’re reputed to live in the age of the real-time Web, that term “is kind of a misnomer,” given the turn-based nature of social games. He used this assertion to position Airtime as a “platform for synchronous interactions” like sharing videos.

But video sharing isn’t the only way Airtime looks to set itself apart from Facebook video calling. Facebook has created an accurate representation of a consumer’s existing social graph, said Parker, but “Facebook isn’t helping you make new connections or build new relationships.” Airtime aims to “break outside the social graph and leverage [the] untapped power of interest graph,” he said, by letting users connect with people they may not know but with whom they have similarities, based on Facebook profiles. The identity and location of Airtime users who connect this way are kept anonymous until a user opts to reveal himself or herself. For example, an Airtime user can find and video chat with a stranger who also happens to like the Lakers and surfing. Users can go on to friend these new connections or add interests from their profiles. “The interest graph is an untapped database,” said Parker.

Using the interest graph should help Airtime avoid the randomness that plagued Chatroulette. Parker made a point to stress the safety of Airtime during his presentation. Since Airtime is built on the Facebook platform, the real identity of its users provides accountability, he said. He added that Airtime has algorithms in place to detect “bad actors” as well as a manual-review process for those users who are flagged.

So that’s Airtime the product, which is, yes, another video-chat client a la Skype, Google+ Hangouts, Facebook video calling, etc. but one notable for bringing attention to a lack of companies capitalizing on Facebook's interest graph. But what about Airtime the event?

Jimmy Fallon kicked things off with a Q&A with the duo that was meant to underscore that “Hey, the Napster guys are back together.” Then Parker gave an investor-pitch-style presentation of what Airtime is and why he and Fanning decided to create it. After that it was demo time. First Parker dialed up Olivia Munn, star of HBO’s upcoming series The Newsroom, and the two chatted and shared videos for a couple minutes before the video of Munn froze. Technical glitch No. 1.

Conveniently, Munn was backstage so Parker brought her out to try Airtime. She tried to call Snoop Dogg a couple of times to no avail—Parker pointed out that Munn could leave Snoop a video voicemail through Airtime—until the smoke literally cleared, revealing the rapper. After an actually impressive beatbox performance, Munn waved off Snoop to chat with Community star and The Soup host Joel McHale. He made fun of the fact that Munn wasn’t wearing a bra then appeared from backstage to try his hand at Airtime. But nope, that wasn’t gonna happen.

McHale and Munn entertained the crowd with jokes while Parker anxiously watched a couple of employees try to rectify the matter. Eventually they did and McHale called Veep star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who then came onstage to call The Office’s Ed Helms, who then—you get the point. Eventually Parker Airtimed Jim Carrey, who asked where on the service he could download music before he joined the other celebs on stage, at which point Parker introduced a well-produced video showing off the service sans glitches, which an Airtime spokesperson said were due to technical issues with the Intranet at the venue. The end.