All style, no substance

June 6, 2012 10:53 am

Napster creators’ new video chat service flops

They had the celebrities (Snoop Dogg, Alicia Keys, Jim Carrey), the financial backing (a reported US$30 million from the moneymen who made Facebook possible, including Andreessen Horowitz and Accel Partners) and the glitzy location (Chelsea, New York). But ultimately the launch of Airtime delivered a damp squib rather than the promised fireworks.

In its own words, Airtime lets users ‘create shared experiences with people you know, and people you want to know’. The brainchild of Napster founders Shawn Fanning and Sean ‘Justin Timberlake played me in The Social Network and I came off looking like a duplicitous, self-serving d-bag’ Parker, Airtime is a video chat service designed to let friends and strangers connect with each other in real time.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is essentially an updated and, says the BBC, ‘more moneyed’ version of Chatroulette which you may remember was touted as the next big thing in social media two or three years ago – until it became a virtual playground for perverts who ended up taking over.

Great user-generated content – in theory

Airtime lets you chat with strangers – even the guy on the right...According to the Beeb: ‘Airtime shows users a list of contacts based on their Facebook friends at launch, but the focus of the service is a large “talk to someone” button which, when pressed, connects them to someone new in a video chat box.

‘Participants are matched with preference given to whether they are nearby, share interests and are friends of friends – although any, or all, of these categories can be deselected before taking part.

‘Users can see what they share in common to help spark conversations and choose whether to reveal their name.

‘If they get on they can add each other to their contacts, perform for each other – a promotional video shows users juggling and playing musical instruments – and watch YouTube videos together.

‘Members award each other points based on the quality of their interactions. When a user’s “applause meter’ becomes full a “badge” is attached to their profile.

‘Administrators say to reduce risk they will only match users under the age of 18 with each other. The hope is that others behave bearing in mind their memberships are linked to their Facebook profiles.’

It sounds like great user-generated content, only… if the recent launch is anything to go by, it simply doesn’t work. Kim Gittleson described it beautifully:

Launch gremlins

Sean Parker was left red-faced at the Airtime launch

‘It was an event that had looked to be almost depressing in its slickness. Bespectacled tech press sat in the glow of their Macs, tan celebrities strutted about in five-inch heels, and soul-crushing mini-containers of Chinese food were laid out on tables.

‘Surrounded by the likes of chatshow host Jimmy Fallon and movie star Jim Carrey, Mr Parker stood on stage and asked grandiose questions like “Why is the internet so boring?” and made proclamations about changing the social web.

‘But change, it seems, was slow in coming.

“We’re going to restart this computer and then find someone to blame this on,” said Parker, whose face froze into a semi-blank mask as his first demonstration of the chat service with actress Olivia Munn fell apart.

What seemed to be an errant technical glitch quickly turned into a nightmare, as each successive celebrity – Ed Helms, Alicia Keys, even Snoop Dogg – struggled to deal with the endless parade of frozen screens and dropped connections that continued for an excruciatingly long time.

‘“Sean, you want to yell at your staff?” asked comedian Ed Helms, as his attempts to connect with Airtime’s offices failed.

‘“I swear it worked last night,” pleaded Ms Munn, as the stars shuffled uncomfortably on stage while two helpless Airtime techs tried to get the demo version back online.

‘“We can’t even get the microphones to work,” Parker muttered.’

In fairness, the glitches were eventually sorted, allowing Parker to proclaim, ‘It actually works!’ Still, though, in an age when first impressions are crucial, you can’t help feeling that Airtime is all style and no substance.

Which, in content marketing terms, is rather like a movie that makes $100 million on its opening weekend, then sinks without a trace once word of mouth gets around.


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