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Napster’s Founders Try a Video Chat Do-Over

With Airtime, Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning hope to provide a better way to spontaneously meet new people online.

When Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning first teamed up in the late 1990s, they changed the way people share and discover music, with Napster. They’re hoping to be similarly disruptive with their new startup, Airtime, which lets users conduct video chats with Facebook friends and like-minded strangers over the Web.

Parker and Fanning, who themselves met in an online chat room, unveiled the service Tuesday at a New York event that included celebrity guests and technical glitches, as several attempts at Airtime calls failed in front of the crowd. Airtime, which requires users to have a Facebook account and a computer with a webcam, has long been in the works, with little known about it previously beyond that it would be a social video company.

Though it may sound a lot like the online video chat service Chatroulette, which went viral in 2010 but has since stagnated, the serendipity built into Airtime is more controlled, since you’re matched up with strangers according to shared interests and location (and users who are under 18 are only matched with each other). The site also lets you “watch” YouTube videos with chat partners, and the company says it will soon add additional ways to share media.

The company’s founders are betting that this approach will bring in new users in an already crowded online video space, which includes services like Skype, Hangouts on Google+, and Ustream, and keep them coming back.

Signing up for Airtime involves connecting your Facebook account and allowing the service access to your computer’s webcam. A browser window will show you Facebook friends that you can chat with, and you can record a video message for a buddy if he’s not around when you call. Currently, there is no mobile option for using the service.

A “Talk to Someone” button lets you call strangers, and when you start talking to someone you don’t know, Airtime will show you people with common friends and interests. If your chat buddy requests to add you, and you accept, you’ll be able to see each other’s names. And if you get sick of talking to the other person, you can press “Next” to move on to someone else.

I tried Airtime out, and among others I was connected with Andie Miller, a barista in Phoenix (apparently, we have a common Facebook friend). Miller had already spoken to half a dozen people via Airtime that day, including a T-shirt printmaker in Australia and three men with big mustaches in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Miller said she likes that the service matches people based on commonalities—which makes it less likely she’ll end up talking to “creeps.”

“If people listen to similar music that I do, for the most part, we’re all like-minded human beings,” she reasoned.

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