Airtime makes an awkward first impressionJune 5, 2012: 5:00 PM ET
Sean Parker's new video venture launch had A-list appearances but more glitch than glitz — and no word of a business plan
By Alex Konrad, reporter
FORTUNE -- Airtime, the new video networking service by Napster co-founders Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, is supposed to help you branch out from your Facebook friends while still making it easier to share content with existing buddies. But at its choppy launch today, Airtime didn't do itself many favors as Parker called on his celebrity pals to paper over the cracks.
The company aims to offer frictionless video networking that allows you to chat with your existing friends or with strangers based on location or interests you share on Facebook. Like predecessor Chatroulette.com, it's easy to switch to a new chat partner, but unlike that service, which became known for its shock value, Airtime allows users to reveal their identity and share content such as YouTube videos. At the launch in New York, however, the potential for a major shakeup to the Facebook social graph took a backseat to technical problems and a somewhat manic, nervous Parker.
Parker brought along several celebrities to demonstrate the video chat feature, but the famous comics ended up doing increasingly zany improv as the event devolved into farce. From the get-go, Parker had problems with his mic, and the technical glitches mounted after Jimmy Fallon interviewed Fanning and Parker. Actors came out one by one to attempt to use Airtime, with decidedly mixed results. Olivia Munn, Joel McHale, Ed Helms, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jim Carrey, Alicia Keys and Snoop Dogg took turns chatting in a bizarre game of celebrity promotional (video) telephone, Eventually, everyone but Keys and Snoop emerged from a side room to join the fracas on stage. The chats demonstrated some functionality, such as the ability to quickly add each other's interests (Helms saw Marvin Gaye on Keys' account and added him to his own interests, which also included falafel). However, the comedians made their presence most felt when they turned their tongues on the launch and themselves. Helms joked about not knowing how to pronounce his "best friend" Keys' first name as he waited for her to join their chat, and Munn chastised a hapless technical support staffer with a racial stereotype, only to quickly realize she'd might have crossed the line and quickly turned front to excuse it: "I'm Asian too!" she said.
The jokes filled the downtime in the demo, and Parker and Airtime were increasingly their focus -- not exactly the launched company's ideal. Carrey quipped that he had "absolutely no monetary stake at all" in his appearance at the event and asked where he could find the button to steal free music within Airtime, drawing awkward silence from the stage. Parker would later credit the quick-thinking and cheeky actors with saving the day amidst "a fucked up [technical] situation," adding in good humor that the event had always been "weird [for him] to do." Through the cringes, Airtime did actually get some time on air, and its video-sharing component appeared fairly easy to use. It got a unscripted defense from Carrey as he left the stage, with the actor blurting out to the general room that Airtime "really is a pretty good idea." And after Parker caught his breath from the presentation, he said that he sees Airtime immediately competing in music and social games, at his best when now speaking to just a small group without the cameras still rolling.
Alluding to Zynga's controversially acquired social game Draw Something -- but using the name of the game that inspired it, Pictionary -- Parker tweaked the social gaming company by arguing that Airtime's live stream will better its "awkwardly converted" turn-based formats for social games, allowing games to flow live as they were intended. Parker also dismissed the notion that Facebook might try to simply beef up its own chat capabilities to offer Airtime-like features. The Facebook veteran said his old company has its hands full with the separate vision of a more efficient social graph for the friends you already know.
Airtime has some appeal with sharing that will go beyond what's available in current chat competitors and friend discovery the company is banking will catch on as more effective and less genitalia-centric than Chatroulette. When Fortune asked Parker, still exhaling as his celebrity talent bolted from the scene, if he plans to sell ad space on the platform (a premium service would seemingly be more difficult to introduce down the road), the Founders Fund partner replies, "We haven't yet talked about our business model," Parker says. "But there are obvious extrapolations of what we are doing." A subtle way to say yes?
After the Vaudevillian, gaudy mess of its launch, subtle and measured might be the best way for Airtime to go for a while.