Expectations were starting to flag as a scrum of reporters stood in a milk-white waiting room waiting for Airtime to fix a few last-minute bugs. “Sean is freaking out,” we overheard one Airtimer confide. (Or was it Shawn?) But media were ushered in just after 10:30, and when latenight talk show host Jimmy Fallon ran onstage to rock music to introduce us all to the “live social video platform,” we knew we were in for a show. “Tell me how you guys met,” Mr. Fallon asked Airtime cofounders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker. The audience’s terrible, frenzied applause was just getting started.
A-listers including Martha Stewart and Julie Louis-Dreyfus were reportedly on board to pimp the app, so Betabeat figured we’d be privvy to the kind of celebrity tongue twisting—”live social video platform,” “real-time web social media video chatroom”—that often accompanies a tech endorsement. But we were wrong. The demo, which also featured Olivia Munn, Joel McHale, Ed Helms, Snoop Dogg, Alicia Keys and Jim Carrey, was all about the app. And it looks good.
Sean Parker’s presentation was the only wonky bit. For all his dissing of Turntable.fm, Mr. Parker’s intro was all about simultaneous Internet-ing. “Where are all the synchronous apps?” he asked at one point. Airtime satisfies two needs, as Mr. Parker sees it. One, the need to make the Internet more like the real world. And two, the need to make the Internet more serendipitous as social networks increasingly lock us into the same virtual rooms as all our friends. “The social network is basically constraining who you interact with and what you say,” Mr. Parker said. “There’s a part of me that feels somewhat bored by this.” Betabeat felt a shiver as we pictured what happens when Mr. Parker gets bored.
The app, as demonstrated by the celebrity guests, requires no download—just a webcam and authentication through Facebook. Once in, users can two-way video chat with a friend or a stranger who shares the same interests, as determined by “likes” on Facebook. Oddly, the video is the same size for both people, so you’re looking at your own blown-out face parallel to the person you’re talking to. “I can’t stop looking at myself!” Jim Carrey said.
Airtime is also integrated with YouTube, so users can search for a video within the app and watch it together. Mr. Parker always stays on the phone after he tells his fiance to watch a video, he said, because he wants to witness her reaction. With Airtime, it’s as if you and the other person are sitting next to each other and watching YouTube videos together. If the person you’re calling isn’t there—Ms. Keys and Mr. Dogg did not answer on the first ring—it’s possible to record a video message.
The second aspect of Airtime, which enables users to video chat with strangers a la Chatroulette, reminded this reporter of something else: Napster. When I was 13, I used to make friends in Napster chat rooms the way other people made friends in AOL chat rooms. We’d a/s/l, trade music and talk about punk rock and angsty teenager things. If I made a really good friend, we’d escalate to AIM. I am now friends with one of my Napster friends on Facebook. The Internet!
Mr. Parker and co. did not demo the serendipitous aspect of Airtime, but it was touched on in a video shown at the end of the event. A girl chats with another girl, learns to like street art, tabs over to a guy juggling, trades him in for a guy leaning over his guitar.
How will Airtime avoid being inundated with penises, the downfall of Chatroulette? It’s connected to your identity on Facebook, discouraging creepers from flashing their junk. Airtime will be policing that shit, Mr. Parker warned, with a slide that listed Airtime’s five most important priorities: safety, safety, safety, safety, and “no penises,” which quickly resolved to say “safety,” again. We’ll just say for the record that there is no way that people won’t be getting naked on Airtime. But it will also serve people who want to talk to their friends really well.
Airtime’s staging demo, built for the event, started hiccuping just as Joel McHale of “Community” took the stage. Mr. McHale and Ms. Munn bantered as an increasingly agitated Mr. Parker apologized for having not slept. “Nice hoodie, very original,” Mr. McHale told the Airtime tech fiddling with the display computer. Meanwhile, outside the room, the site had been live for an hour and some publications had already released embargoed reviews.
For all the hiccups, Airtime looked fun, well-designed and easy to use. (So easy to use that it’s impressive that the event lasted as long as it did.) It’s perfect for the Facebook crowd. If it works smoothly, it’s hard to see how it could fail, even if the Chatroulette aspect doesn’t take off. As for Mr. Parker’s goal of re-humanizing the Internet, the jury’s still out on that one.