I have to admit, the new Airtime video chat service looks and feels cool. Certainly, that can be traced to its founders, Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning of Napster fame, among other things. Parker wasn't just the cool guy who lured Mark Zuckerberg to the West Coast in "The Social Network." His playlists on Spotify have also become one of my favorite places to find new music, and his spectacles are... well, I'm sure some people like them.
Given this duo's trend-setting credentials, it is with much trepidation that I express my utter bewilderment at how Sean/Shawn could think that anyone actually wants another video chat app trying to force random people to stare at each other and discuss the latest episode of "Mad Men."
Airtime rides on top of Facebook as an app with a slick skin, adding a video chat window and an aggregated list of friends, friends of friends, and people in your area who might want to chat. It also culls topics from your Facebook data that it thinks you might be interested in and throws them into a tag cloud. Click on one of the tags and you could be transported into the living room of another Airtime user who shares your passion for -- to use an actual example from my list -- "Mountain Standard Time." Imagine all the friends you could make over a lively discussion about your time zone.
As CNET's Greg Sandoval points out, Airtime is a bit like an upgraded version of Chatroulette, the random video chat service that had a short life after introducing the world to a whole new generation of flashers.
Airtime looks to prevent this problem by banning a number of inappropriate behaviors in its terms of service, including nudity, animal cruelty, and drug use. Most ironically, the founders of Napster now deem "recording content and distributing it without permission" to be completely unacceptable.
Even without all the unwanted phalluses, and with the Sean Parker and Facebook brands to help it float, Airtime is still selling a service no one seems to be asking for. Many video chat startups have come and gone, and Skype has been around for years now without a popular third-party tool or community to connect random people via the ubiquitous video service ever gaining any traction. Further, only tech people "in the know" seem to be actually hanging out in Google+ hangouts, barring the occasional appearance by Will.i.am or the Dalai Lama.
I gave Airtime a spin right after its star-studded and glitch-riddled debut today. I tried video chatting with a dozen Facebook friends, including CNET colleagues, the guys I'm going for a bike ride with later today, and other friends and relatives that I know aren't generally averse to a video conversation. None of them answered, but a few immediately responded via text chat. From this I can conclude one of a few things -- the sight of my face might induce nausea or allergic reactions, or most people just don't have the time, interest, or hygiene habits to accommodate a video chat on short notice.
After a few minutes on Airtime, I did get a random call from a CNET reader in the U.K. due to our shared interest in "CNET." Although the gentleman on the other end of the call seemed quite pleasant, the call was awkward and broken up by technical glitches as we both tried to figure out what we should be doing.
"So, you're in the U.K. and you like CNET?" (nervous chuckle)
"I guess, am I supposed to do something?
"I don't know... wait, are you talking to me or the guy standing behind you?"
And so it went for a few minutes until the video connection was finally lost.
Carving a niche from thin air?
If there is a future for Airtime it's not in trying to connect random people via poorly compiled interests, except perhaps for a more narrow purpose. As CNET's Rafe Needleman found, it's good for pitching your startup to a room of editors. As part of a platform designed for online dating, Airtime seems like an ideal tool. I can also envision some distance education applications that might make sense for Airtime -- perhaps adding a live interaction component to the Khan Academy, for example.
Of course, it's possible I just don't get it yet because I'm not as hip and forward-thinking as Mr. Parker. Years after integrating Twitter into my life, I'm still a little baffled that we've all agreed on short 140-character bursts of thought as a viable communication medium.
But even if you dismiss the skeptics as mere Luddites, there's still clearly some technical work to be done on Airtime -- and the interface and algorithm that determines a user's interest could use some help, too. For some reason, one of my top interests -- along with my time zone -- is "A Woman's Perspective."
I decided to take it as a hint and ask the woman in my life what she thought. She didn't answer my video chat request either.