Does the World Really Need Airtime?

The founders of Napster are at it again, but this time they’re on a mission to makeNapster, Sean Parker, Shawn Fanning, Airtime the web a more personal place, one video at a time.

On Tuesday Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning introduced Airtime, “the best and fastest way to video chat with your friends on any platform. No download required, just login with your Facebook and begin video chatting with your friends immediately, right in your browser.”

Sean Parker, who previously served as Founding President of Facebook, sees Airtime as an opportunity to take Facebook connections to the next level – to “break outside your social graph and find people like you based on shared interests.”

Napster, Sean Parker, Shawn Fanning, Airtime

How it works

First, log in in using Facebook. Yep, that’s your only option. As Jeremiah Owyang aptly puts it:

More on user perceptions of social logins here.

Once you’re logged in, you’ll be directed to the screen below. You have the option to chat with preexisting Facebook friends (if one of your friends is online on Facebook, they’re automatically on Airtime. Just send them an invite to chat and it will be delivered via Facebook Chat), as seen in the righthand column. But to keep things interesting, you also have the option to chat with a stranger who shares some trait with you, like interest in a specific topic (as represented by Facebook likes) or geographic location. So when I hit Talk to Someone, Airtime tries to make conversation easy by providing something we have in common, like a favorite band or book.

Napster, Sean Parker, Shawn Fanning, Airtime

But this whole randomly paired video chat concept sounds vaguely familiar, right? It mirrors ChatRoulette, a popular random chat site circa 2012 that became notorious for nudity.

The founders of Airtime acknowledge the obvious influence of ChatRoulette, but say they’ve built a more sophisticated version. “ChatRoulette showed what was possible going forward, but we knew it wasn’t the endgame,” said Parker. In the end, ChatRoulette was too random; there was no foundation for meaningful conversation.

And because it’s tied to your Facebook identity, you can be banned for breaking the rules, i.e. being naked, ChatRoulette style.

If chatting with strangers isn’t your thing, you’ve got other options, like simultaneously watching a video with the person you’re chatting with – because sharing a funny video is way better when you can actually see the recipient’s reaction.

Finally, Airtime is a completely web-based service, so there’s no need to download any software.

Some are praising the service, like Josh Constine of TechCrunch, who says “Airtime lets you strengthen the ties of your social graph, but also break out of it.”

But the service is not without its critics. Many simply point to the relentless technical glitches at the product’s launch, while others ask, what’s the point? CNET’s Greg Sandoal attended the launch, remarking afterwards, “cool technology or not, the demand for this kind of service has yet to emerge.”

I don’t think it’s worthless, by any means. While I can’t say I have much interest in chatting with complete strangers, the fact that this is but one element of the service acts as a saving grace. All of my Facebook friends are automatically on board, and chatting with them face-to-face is now a quick an easy option. Airtime pulls all of the best elements from Skype, Google Hangouts and ChatRoulette, and I think it’s got some serious potential. Sure, group chat and mobile capabilities are lacking, but the founders promise that these features are in the works.

In the end, Parker says this service exists because “fun things should happen online.” He’s got a point – we’ll have to wait and see what kind of fun Airtime can actually provide.

Have you tried out Sean and Shawn’s latest product? What are your initial reactions?