Napster Co-Founders Launch New Social Network Airtime

Sean Parker.
Sean Parker.
 Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Napster co-founders Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning reunited Tuesday at a star-studded event to launch Airtime, a new live social video platform. The presentation was made at Milk Studios in New York and included references to the days when the two shook up the music business, a critique of the "dehumanizing" Internet as it exists today, their new service and lots of technical glitches.

Parker and Fanning met as young teenagers in the mid-90s before launching Napster, the famous file-sharing company that attracted tens of millions of users and plenty of scorn from the entertainment industry.

More than 10 years after various record labels sued and forced Napster to be sold, Parker and Fanning took the stage together and were introduced by Jimmy Fallon, who promised something "just as huge" as Napster, except something that "won't make the entire record industry mad at them and even Lars Ulrich can use it."

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On stage, Fallon interviewed the two and asked them how they had met. They answered that they had met as young hackers on the Internet in a chat room, an obvious set-up to the introduction of Airtime, which is meant to facilitate interaction.

Parker pitched the audience that in the last few years, social media has "taken over the world and allowed anyone to publish, eliminating the content gatekeepers," but that for all of the change that has occurred, he feels the "boring" digital environment has become dehumanizing. "It feels like we spend more time processing information than establishing connections," he says.

With that, along with cited statistics like 800 million webcams being shipped this year, Parker unveiled Airtime. The network platform is meant to sit atop of Facebook with three key features: One, it's a video chat service. Two, it allows users who interact to share video content with each other. And three, it allows its users to discover those with similar personal interests by making somewhat random, hopefully serendipitous, connections.

In terms of being a potential disruptor to the content industry, it probably isn't -- at least now, before any apps are introduced. However, the fact that the co-founders of Napster are behind a new service that enables video sharing facilitation will raise some eyebrows, although it's a feature that so far favors one-to-one micro-sharing instead of anything potentially more legally problematic.

The service might also attract some industry attention for leveraging what Parker calls the "untapped potential of the interest graph." Parker, who helped Facebook get off the ground and was portrayed by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network, noted that Facebook generates three billion "likes" per day -- an "untapped store of data." Undoubtedly, a healthy percentage of those "likes" connect to entertainment content. With the system, among the possibilities, fans of a particular TV show could have video chats with each other.

Of course, there are other video chatting platforms including Skype, Google Plus and Facebook itself, which hold the same possibilities, and Parker acknowledges that Airtime's value will rest entirely upon user adoption.

To get there, Airtime brought out a number of celebrities to demo the product. Parker used the system to call Olivia Munn, who then came onstage to call Snoop Dogg remotely. Then, Joel McHale came out and called Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who used Airtime to chat up Ed Helms, who first called Alicia Keys (asking her out) before dialing up Jim Carrey.

Carrey got off the most wisecracks.

"My interests say nothing about money," he joked, noting his Airtime profile and looking at Parker. "I thought we'd have that in common."

Later, Carrey asked, "Where do I click to download free music?"

Not everything ran smooth. The system crashed several times. The celebrities often had a hard time using the platform to connect with each other. Even the microphones broke down, leaving the celebrities rushing to kill airtime, so to speak, as IT help came, and Parker squirmed. Things got so bad at one point that Munn told everyone to trust her that things worked out in rehearsals. "Honestly, you can do the most complicated things on this, I swear to God," she said.

Airtime is being launched with nearly $35 million in funding from Silicon Valley VC heavyweights and stars like actor Ashton Kutcher and musician will.i.am. Recently, Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman joined the company's board.

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner

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