March 29, 2023

Bits Blog: Napster Founders Unveil a Video Chat Service

Shawn Fanning, left, and Sean Parker at Tuesday's event.Ozier Muhammad/The New York TimesShawn Fanning, left, and Sean Parker at Tuesday’s event.

1:30 p.m. | Updated Adding updates from press event.

Airtime, a video-chat site that made its debut on Tuesday, is joining a batch of similar services. But this one is getting extra attention because of its high-profile founders: Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, two of the creators of the music-sharing service Napster.

Their start-up lets people use webcams to connect with their Facebook friends or random strangers. Users can search for chat partners based on their interests, shared social connections and location. Once connected, they can talk, type messages or even watch YouTube videos together.

Mr. Parker and Mr. Fanning, who have been working on the company for the last two years, unveiled the service at a splashy press conference in downtown Manhattan. They brought in a line-up of celebrities to demonstrate Airtime, including the actors Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jim Carrey and Ed Helms, the singer Alicia Keys, the rapper Snoop Dogg and the talk-show host Jimmy Fallon, who introduced the event. But despite their best-laid plans, the event was fraught with technical difficulties and glitches.

“Who are you going to fire over this?” cracked Joel McHale, a comedian and star of the TV show “Community.” Mr. Parker remained relatively collected throughout, although eventually he gave in and showed a polished video in lieu of a live demonstration.

During the event, Mr. Parker, who was the founding president of Facebook and was instrumental in helping Mark Zuckerberg expand that site, stressed Airtime’s ability to help people expand their social networks and meet new people. He said social networks like Facebook can actually prevent you from meeting new people, and he described the current repertoire of social Web experiences as “boring.”

“We’re trying to restore surprise and serendipity to the Internet,” he said. “It was definitely there in the early days, but it has disappeared.”

It is his and Mr. Fanning’s hope that by providing a clean, well-lit place to meet new people, Airtime will spark the same kind of serendipitous interactions that brought the two of them together in an online chat room in the late 1990s. That meeting led to an offline friendship and the creation of Napster, which rocked the music business before a barrage of legal challenges shut it down in 2001.

“The downside of all our interactions online is that they are constrained by the social graph,” said Mr. Parker, referring to one’s network of connections on Facebook. “There is a gaping hole that exists. Facebook shrunk the world and constrained our interactions to the 500 people that you are connected to.”

If Airtime sounds reminiscent of Chatroulette, the random video chatting service that captivated the Web in 2010, that is because Chatroulette inspired the service.

The two men were working with Andrey Ternovskiy, who created Chatroulette as a 17-year-old Russian high school student, but the collaboration did not work out. Mr. Parker and Mr. Fanning were both impressed enough by the rocket-like popularity of Chatroulette, which attracted nearly 2 million monthly visitors at its peak, that they decided to try to replicate that recipe in their own chat service and add some new flourishes of their own.

“That service had rapid, rapid growth but no innate viral mechanism,” Mr. Fanning said. “It was completely word of mouth because people were curious about it, and I think we can have the same impact.”

But they said their service faces some of the same challenges that Chatroulette struggled with — particularly, the risk that your new chat partner is not fully clothed.

To combat that, they have built in a number of systems, including facial-recognition software that sends up a flag if no faces are detected on camera, and a ranking system that scores people based on their interactions. People who are frequently “nexted,” or passed over for another partner, will have a lower ranking than those who stay in lengthy chat sessions.

Highly ranked users are listed together as a way to ensure that serious users are matched with other people who aren’t pranking around. In addition, the service captures screen images during conversations and relies on a team of moderators located overseas to keep tabs on any inappropriate exchanges.

Right now, Airtime is designed for interactions between two people. Its founders say it could eventually become a service that lets people broadcast their chats to dozens or more. It could roll out a system of virtual goods — special effects that, say, add mustaches to the faces of chatters — that could generate revenue. Airtime will also incorporate advertisements into the service.

Mr. Fanning and Mr. Parker are hoping to make a dent in a fairly crowded market. In addition to Chatroulette, which is still up and running, there are also competitors like Skype, Google Hangouts, TinyChat, ooVoo and Ustream. But the two are convinced that they will be able to gain enough of a following to distinguish themselves from the pack.

The service has already attracted heavy-hitting backers. It has raised close to $40 million in venture funding and added prominent board members, including Bob Pittman, the chief executive of Clear Channel and founder of MTV.

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