It may sound like a forgettable combo of two Apple products, but a new service from the minds behind Napster has much more in common with the chaotic social petri dish known as Chatroulette than anything out of Cupertino. But can Airtime hit a social sweet spot we didn't even know we had - or is this just another blip in the ill-fated trajectory of social discovery apps that aren't explicitly about sex?
Talk to Someone
I spent a day and a half with Airtime following its launch, and it's been an interesting splash into quasi-anonymous social waters. The service is built on top of Facebook's social graph, but it pries open that formula a bit if you have the taste for virtual adventure that Sean Parker thinks the Web is devoid of. You can stick with a sidebar stocked with the people you know (dull) or spin the wheel and chat up a stranger, who will pop up in your window based on Airtime's algorithm of mutual friends and shared interests. Talking to strangers not compelling enough on its own? Rack up "points" through an achievement system that blends a Guitar Hero solo, Foursquare-like badges and maybe a bad karaoke machine.
So far my pairings have been more hit than miss, but mainly because my strangers and I have shared one big common denominator: We've heard of Airtime to begin with. The social video network is teeming with an early mix of curious software developers, tech news acolytes and other early-adopter types. From my cross-section, the network feels a lot like Google+ did at launch (and still does, for the most part). Roughly half of the folks I chatted with had a shared interest in a technology publication among our Facebook likes. I'm actually pretty surprised I've yet to run into a tech journo on a similar mission to take the pulse of the Napster dynasty newcomer. And like Google+ in its early days, Airtime is almost wholly devoid of women. So devoid, in fact, that upon learning I was a technology writer, one stranger actually asked me if I was Alexia Tsotsis. He claimed to have "a bone to pick with her." So, watch out for that, Alexia.
In spite of being the only woman I've spotted on the service to date, the overwhelming first question on Airtime is happily not "what are you wearing?" (I guess that's rather obvious) but "what do you do?" I chatted up a handful of software devs, a management consultant, a social media manager and a Turkish computer science student. One of my more offbeat interactions was with an editor who was cruising around promoting a hip hop music video he edited while hanging out with a backdrop of guys playing Madden on an Xbox 360. Interestingly, to date Airtime is a remarkably polite social network - even the video editor was sure thank me for giving the song a shot (it was pretty good, actually) before we talked a little about his Airtime encounters. He said his most interesting Airtime serendipity moment so far had been chatting up a man who lived in Iraq. Another guy told me that I "seem chill" with an approving head nod before we agreed to mutually unveil our true identities. One of my partners had been paired with a guy who'd chatted with Mark Zuckerberg, who's apparently kicking the tires of Parker's new venture. I've added each of my strangers to my friends list so far to prevent them from vanishing into the digital ether, à la Chatroulette.
Facebook x Chatroulette + Pants
Thanks to its not-quite-anonymous social fabric, my time spent on Airtime has been approximately 1 million times less disturbing than Chatroulette's grab bag of weirdness. Back in 2010, enduring a parade of fleshy horrors to get at the sometimes delightful, odd core of Chatroulette at its best was worth it - at least at first. But in such a lurid virtual world, the first 20 seconds of a Chatroulette encounter felt like an audition in which you were hurried off the stage more often than not. Happily, unless you're Zuck himself, insta-skipping seems to be a faux pas in Airtime so far. In fact, I held up a decent conversation with everyone who made a cameo in my chat window, usually as we ferreted out the reason we were paired up to begin with. And since Airtime's founders have sworn themselves to fending off the onslaught of genitalia through what amounts to an algorithmic penis detection system, cruising through the service does feel far safer (though perhaps less laissez-faire weird) than Chatroulette. That said, even on Airtime, random video chat is still a bit harrowing, but the exhilaration of not knowing what's about to happen is at least half the fun.
Its launch demo might have been a total meltdown, but Airtime was a pretty smooth experience, if a huge battery drain on an unplugged Macbook Air, which began to rev up like a rocket engine at a SpaceX launch. Still, it's totally derivative, taking the brilliant randomness of Chatroulette, filtering it through Facebook's social graph for accountability and adding a pinch of online dating-esque compatability matching. But even if it's well executed, and pretty decent at producing interesting conversational pairings thanks to a well-tuned algorithm, does anyone really need it?
Social Serendipity Still Creeps Us Out
Convincing casual social media users that something like Airtime isn't just speed dating is a hard sell. Blame Chatroulette, mid-'90s AOL chat rooms or Grindr, but meeting strangers through technology not for sex still feels inescapably creepy, even when it's cleverly facilitated by an app such as Glancee or Highlight. We like connecting with the people we meet in person after the fact, and even that's hard to make adequate time for. When it comes to video chat with the people we already know, there's no compelling reason to opt for Airtime over a Google+ Hangout, a Skype chat or even a Facetime call. And if you're interested in connecting with friends and family via video to begin with, odds are you've already picked your poison. Sean Parker may want to make Facebook less "boring" by inspiring serendipitous social discovery, but it's hard to imagine that Airtime isn't dead on arrival - there just isn't room for such a diluted blend of existing social tools nor is there the adventurous userbase to adopt them. We have Facebook and Facetime for the people we already know, Twitter and Google+ for the people we want to know and OkCupid and Match.com for the people we want to know, er, intimately. And for the greyer, more "serendipitous" areas? Chatroulette still boasts enough unfettered weirdness for a lifetime.