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Airtime Aims to Put the Surprise Back in Social



Bored? Lonely? Want to spend a little time chatting with a total stranger who loves all the things you love? Fire up Airtime and in minutes, you’ll be talking live with a real woman who speaks your language.

Okay, so it sounds like one of those sleazy, chatlines they advertise on late night TV, but Airtime is actually the next big thing in online chatting. It comes to you from Napster founders Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, two guys who want to put the surprise and wonder back into internet hook-ups.

Let’s begin by looking at the cool, quirky, but slightly frightening banner they use on the site.

When you visit Airtime.com, you’ll see this interesting graphic. Click it and the figure on the right (the guy wearing the bear suit while playing the banjo in the woods) slides away and is replaced with another bizarre character. There’s an astronaut online from the moon, an accordion player sitting on a throne, a knight on a lawn chair surrounded by pink flamingos and more. A couple of the options are almost normal, like the woman on the lawn chair, except that there’s some kind of sea monster crawling on a chair behind her. Weird.

I like weird, but I have to say I’m perplexed and disturbed by the graphic in the center which implies we’re all part of a massive, b-movie, lab experiment. Maybe Hulu isn’t the only online site operated by aliens.

Airtime is part Skype, part Facebook, part online dating service. You activate the service through your Facebook account then choose to find a chat partner based on your location or your interests. Video on both ends, options to pass if it doesn’t work out and “facial recognition” software to make sure it’s a face in the window and not another body part.

The creators say they hope Airtime will put the human-interaction back into the internet by delivering the old school chat room experience with the newest advances in webcam technology. It’s exciting and it’s cool and as much as I hate webcams, I’m tempted to try it. For years, I’ve used Skype to chat with strangers who share my fandom love but finding these people can be tricky. Airtime does the legwork for you, matching up people based on their Facebook profile. The more people that sign on, the better the chance of a good match.

And even though they just launched yesterday, Airtime already has a monetization plan in mind. Imagine that. They plan to sell ad space, but they might make a bigger killing in virtual goods, “special effects that, say, add mustaches to the faces of chatters — that could generate revenue.”

It all sounds pretty smart, except for one thing, the creators couldn’t get the system to work during their big launch event. Hoping for a memorable dog and pony show, Airtime brought in comics Joel McHale, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Jim Carrey to entertain the crowd but as the demonstration went downhill, so did the jokes. In the end, the Huffington Post reports, Attack of the Show co-host Olivia Munn resorting to cursing, swearing to God and then threatening to go after any journalist who wrote a bad review. “I know where all of you live,” she said and I’m sure at least half of the techy bloggers in the audience hoped she’d follow through and pay them a visit.

Will Airtime be the next big social moneymaker on the web or is it already doomed out of the gate? What do you think?