A Smart Look at the Future of Television // In Collaboration With Quinnipiac University's School of Communications
Airtime is a video chat application driven by data it slurps out of the Facebook social graph. With your Facebook friends listed on the side like a buddy list, it can be used like any other videophone program (Skype, Google Hangout, etc.) but Airtime can also operate like a second iteration on the Chatroulette concept. Instead of totally random encounters, Airtime pairs users based on criteria extracted from their Facebook profiles: shared interests, friends in common, and geographic proximity. Advocates, some of whom confess a growing “boredom” with today’s social web, champion this semi-randomness as an intervention to shake up social networks gone stale.
In spite of a glitzy product launch and some glowing reviews from early adopters, a single question lingers: is Airtime really less creepy than Chatroulette?
Three sets of features distinguish Airtime from Chatroulette. First, and of greatest interest to readers of this blog, Airtime promises a platform for synchronous media sharing among friends. There are already some great examples of this idea in the wild: small circles of friends use turntable.fm to play songs for each other at work and thousands regularly tune into Livestream and Ustream channels to watch on-the-ground feeds of Occupy protest video. Currently, Airtime only supports YouTube but an apparently forthcoming API will enable third-party devs to build out other media-sharing features. With hooks into Netflix, Hulu, or a pro sports streaming package, this could become a popular tool among working partners and parents who travel,
Second, because Airtime draws information from your Facebook profile, it promises more compelling, meaningful, and entertaining pairings than the bizarre encounters that characterize Chatroulette. In my early experience, however, the exposure of personal information felt more invasive than inviting–leaving my cursor hovering apprehensively over the “Talk to Someone” button. Further, the “Interests” on a Facebook profile are limited to those things that have Facebook Pages. This market-based constraint results in a very odd representation of my actual interests. Although this limitation is inherited from Facebook, it makes Airtime feel a little bit like a dating service based on the CVS customer loyalty program–”You both bought inkjet printer paper, fancy mixed nuts, and suntan lotion this month!” No thanks.
Finally, Airtime promises a “less creepy” experience than Chatroulette by vigorously policing its users and punishing “bad actors.” Whereas a 2010 study indicated that Chatroulette users could expect genitalia in approximately 5% of their chats, “nudity and partial nudity” top the list of “inappropriate behaviors” on the Airtime Terms of Service. Less obvious prohibitions include “impersonating other people, “recording content and distributing it without permission,” “poor lighting,” and “unauthorized advertising.” Not only does this reflect the same hostility toward pseudonymity that frustrated users on Friendster and remains endemic to Facebook, it will restrict the rich creative practices that grew out of Chatroulette’s minimally-restrictive foundation.
The Airtime website is as vague about its policing strategy as it is forceful about its prohibitions. The tiny amount of information that they do provide, however, should alarm some Airtime users. According to a company spokesperson quoted in Forbes, Airtime surreptitiously takes a snapshot of each user every so often to ensure that no hanky-panky (or unauthorized advertising) is taking place. The snapshots are evaluated by a battery of hueristic algorithms before being raised to the level of human review. The Terms of Service further suggest that these snapshots become the sole property of Airtime, Inc. These Terms may be basic webapp boilerplate but its enough to make this user revoke permissions.
Clearly, significant resources–human and technological–will be required if Airtime intends to keep tabs on millions of video-chatting strangers. What if, instead of rejecting the lascivious side of the net, they embraced it, ditching the Facebook connection in favor of something like a “safer sex” video chat service? Such an unlikely development might combine the interest-driven nature of Craigslist Casual Encounters, the location-awareness of Grindr, and the relative safety of Second Life. (There is probably a team of programmers somewhere already in crunch mode trying to make this happen.)
So is the highly-surveilled Airtime less creepy than the free-for-all Chatroulette? Yes and no. Sure, you are less likely to see a penis in your journey through Airtime’s monitorial estate but you may nonetheless find yourself feeling exposed.
-Contributed by Kevin Driscoll, -