Watching Airtime's “connecting” screen load was more intimidating than it probably should have been—a moment of intangibility and doubt, wondering who, or what, was about to pop up on my laptop. There were some things on Chatroulette that just can’t be unseen.
But Airtime is supposed to be different.
Backed by Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, the guys who created Napster, Airtime has been called a cleaner version of Chatroulette, the video-chat service that matched people with random strangers. Although it was big hit when it first came out, the site quickly became synonymous with men publicly pleasuring themselves.
Unlike its obvious predecessor, however, you have to sign in to Airtime using Facebook, creating some measure of accountability. The site also attempts to use the activity from your profile to finding compatible companions. Even still, my first experience was a little intimidating.
And just like Chatroulette, there’s still plenty of “nexting.” In fact, the first few people (mostly guys), nexted me. (I guess I wasn’t their type.)
I vowed I would never turn my back on a fellow Airtime user. That lasted only a few seconds.
I came across a guy napping in front of his computer. I quickly hit next, as if surfing past paid programming on late-night TV.
A few people later, I found myself with a group sitting in a dorm room. Everyone exchanged waves. Finally, I thought to myself, a real conversation. But I blew it. I realized that my speakers and microphone were off, just in time to hear them say, “We can't hear you, bye.” Story of my life.
After another parade of nexts and near misses (and one Yogurt Cup sitting all by itself), I finally was introduced to a real, live person: SungHoon Chung, who lives in Vancouver but is originally from South Korea. After an awkward exchange of greetings, we enjoyed a pleasant conversation about our various interests. Our lone shared passion seemed to be hiking.
SungHoon said he had been on the site for about two days and had had about 20 legitimate conversations. Since English is his second language, he said the website gives him the perfect opportunity to practice speaking.
“This website helps me get to know more people and their world,” he said.
Twenty minutes later,SungHoon and I went our separate ways, but we added each other to our Airtime friends list so we could pick up the conversation at a later date.
Then I met Jennifer, a Web designer from California, who noted some trends were already appearing: Most everyone on the site was also checking it out for the first time, most of them were men, and thankfully everyone was clothed.
“I think it's a really interesting concept, and it gives you an opportunity meet people all over,” she said. “Everyone has a different reason. I think it's just cool to meet random people and hear their story.”
Jennifer and I found out we had many of the same interests, mostly in shows like How I Met Your Mother, Parks and Recreation, and This American Life. Like the radio show, Airtime gives everyone the chance “to be Ira Glass for a few minutes,” she said.
Pretty soon I had almost forgotten that I had only met this person minutes earlier. It wasn’t awkward or distant but like a Skype chat with someone I’d been meaning to catch up with.
Perhaps SungHoon said it best, “Strangers are just friends that we haven't met.”