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Is Airtime (a clothed version of Chatroulette) destined to fail?

John D. Sutter, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Napster co-founders Sean Parker, Shawn Fanning launch social video venture called Airtime
  • The network is built on top of Facebook
  • It allows users to chat with friends or people with shared interests
  • It's unclear, however, if people want to video chat with strangers

(CNN) -- It sounds like a name-dropping marketer's dream:

Sean Parker -- the Napster co-creator who was played by Justin Timberlake in "The Social Network" -- creates a Facebook-connected app and gets celebrities like actress Olivia Munn, the rapper Snoop Dogg (they've got to be Facebook friends, right?) and Joel McHale, the guy from "Community," to video chat on it.

That was the scene in New York on Tuesday as Parker and Napster co-founder Shawn Fanning announced their new venture, a live video-chatting platform called Airtime.

The problem? In the middle of this rich-rapper-plus-rich-Internet-tycoon gabfest, Airtime crashed. A lot.

"Glitch after glitch marred Airtime's first public showing, leaving the event's collection of celebrities riffing and improvising onstage while engineers tried to fix the bugs and revive dropped connections," CNNMoney's Laurie Segall wrote from the event.

"Airtime demo = Snoop, Jim Carrey, Ed Helms, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Joel McHale, Alicia Keys, Olivia Munn + a million tech problems," tweeted Abby Gardner, from Marie Claire.

"The Airtime has been about 80% fail, but, hey, Jim Carrey is here. So it's all good," wrote Mashable's editor-in-chief, Lance Ulanoff.

CNET was harsher: "To launch his new start-up, Sean Parker should have spent less of his billions on celebrity guests and more of it on fixing his technology," wrote Greg Sandoval.

A botched demonstration, of course, doesn't mean that Airtime is doomed. But, based on reviews from tech writers, descriptions of the product and a quick test, there's something more troubling that could be bad news for Airtime's shelf life:

No one seems to know why people would use it.

How Airtime works

Essentially, Airtime is a Facebook-connected, video-chatting platform on crack. When you log on at Airtime.com you see two video-chat windows, a list of your friends you might want to talk with and a list of topics you might want to talk about.

If you select a topic -- like TV's "Mad Men" or other items you may have "liked" on Facebook -- you will get set up with a video chat with someone else who also likes that show.

The same goes for location: You can have Airtime start a random conversation with someone who is on Facebook and who lives in your geographic area.

It's like Skype, but you can watch YouTube clips with someone while you're engaged in a video chat together. Which makes it like Google+, except it's attached to a social network that has 900 million active users, giving it potentially more reach.

If you're plugged into the tech world, you may recall a website called Chatroulette, which hooked people up with strangers online for quick, random video chats. That site got lots of buzz on this website and others, but it ultimately flopped because people stopped using it for cross-cultural "We Are the World" exchanges, and started getting naked.

Because Airtime also lets people chat with strangers, it's been called the logical, safer successor to Chatroulette -- one with more clothes. Parker's chat program is tied to Facebook, so it knows your real identity and can ban you in a hurry if you show up for a video discussion sans pants. According to this Forbes report, the site will snap photos of users periodically to ensure that people have their clothes on.

So that's how it works. But the question remains: Do Internet users really want to chat with strangers? And if not, is Airtime different enough from Skype -- a video-chat program that's already integrated into Facebook -- to stand out?

Serendipity, or sleaze?

Writing at the blog All Things D, Liz Gannes explains why the Napster alums think people will want to engage in video chats with people they don't know:

"Parker and Fanning argue that they are helping bring serendipity into a world where people's online social graphs are set. Airtime is a 'social discovery' application for helping people make new friends online, not necessarily for the purpose of dating."

But, she writes, it's not certain if that's how people will use the network.

"It's unclear if Airtime will work -- will people want to use it?" she asks. "Will it fill up with spammers and skeezy dudes? Is it technically sound? But what is clear is that there are high expectations for Parker and Fanning's next act."

Sandoval, from CNET, was more direct: "Cool technology or not, the demand for this kind of service has yet to emerge," he wrote.

Others are more upbeat about the future of random video chats.

"The excitement of meeting new people with whom you have no 'friends' in common, only interests, geography or kinks, are probably enough (to propel the product)," Anthony Wing Kosner wrote at Forbes.com. "Parker told (Forbes writer Steven) Bertoni in an interview Sunday, 'Fun crazy things should happen online.' OK. Let the wild rumpus begin! (Once the technical glitches are worked out...)"

Wired, meanwhile, also sees potential in random video conferences between strangers, particularly because Airtime works to set you up with people who have common interests:

"When a chat with a stranger is initiated, the service lists both users' shared interests. So, for example, if both users are huge 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' fans, they could both dive right into discussing the pros and cons of William Riker's beard. Interests can be added and removed from within the video chat window. This is perfect if your love of 'Twin Peaks' has connected you with people who are probably a little too obsessed with the death of Laura Palmer."

The blog TechCrunch goes so far as to say the program will "re-humanize the Internet."

"One minute into using Airtime I was laughing with someone I'd never met," writes Josh Constine. "That's something special when despite all the asynchronous connection, the Internet threatens to make us feel lonely."

My time with Airtime

In my quick test of the network, I had a different experience. Whereas Chatroulette in its early, non-pornographic days felt fun and random, Airtime felt more stilted.

It was almost intimidating to enter into chats on Airtime with strangers who were assumed to have something in common with you.

That said, I did have a couple of good interactions. I talked to one guy about the E3 video-gaming conference going on this week. He seemed impressed with Airtime and said it is way better than Chatroulette.

But I also chatted with someone who was supposed to be in my geographic area and wasn't. We didn't have much to talk about, so I started playing that mash-up YouTube video of Barack Obama singing "Call Me Maybe." The point, I'd hoped, was that this might give us something to talk about -- or at least we could sway together.

Not so much. My 30-second friend hung up on me.

If you go to Airtime.com and sign up, let us know what you think in the comments.

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