How Airtime will fight Chatroulette’s perv problem and rebound from a glitchy launch demo

airtime talk to someoneThis morning, we all got our first look at the newly launched Airtime. The Sean Parker, Shawn Fanning video chat application has been in stealth mode for quite some time, and with the Napster cohorts attached to the project it was sure to make waves.

But now that some of the shiny newness has worn off, it’s time to take a closer look at Airtime.

For starters, let’s get the obvious out of the way – and by that, I mean the Chatroulette comparisons. Airtime really is like a more refined stab at what Chatroulette wanted to do; it’s video chat that connects you with strangers. Albeit it has more capabilities, leverages Facebook, and allows you to find people by interest, but essentially it’s social video chat.

But there are more differences between these two clients than similarities. Really, the basis of the service is where the likenesses end. Still, everyone’s asking the same question: How will Airtime avoid Chatroulette’s “penis problem”?

If you remember, during Chatroulette’s heyday, it had an overwhelming issue with men intentionally exposing themselves to unsuspecting users during the randomly selected chat sessions. Airtime’s initial answer this morning was that connecting with Facebook keeps people honest, that real identity will prevent people from this type of activity. Of course, you can use Airtime privately without sharing your name, but it’s tied to your Facebook account and Airtime can find and punish anyone reported to them for obscene behavior.

Turns out there are a few more technical ways Airtime plans to prevent this. First of all, the Terms of Service don’t allow it! Beyond that, an Airtime rep tells me that “chats are monitored by Airtime through a combination of automatic detection technology and human review to prevent inappropriate behavior from occurring on the site.” That means Airtime is keeping tabs on chats to some degree, popping in to make sure everything’s going according to plan and that there are no penises to be found. According to Forbes, a spokesperson says this includes taking “snapshots of users periodically to ensure site safety.”

Really what this means is that Airtime is not for your most personal or private chatting needs. Go use Skype, Google Hangouts, or Facebook video chat – this is not the place.

When it comes down to it, with this type of stranger-filled video chat network, you have to choose between losing the penises or losing some privacy. Airtime is choosing the latter.

The other red flag today raised was the glitch-ridden press launch – you can check out the full, awkward account over at Huffington Post.

What happened was that Airtime brought in a handful of celebrities to demo the new product, including Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Joel McHale, and Jim Carrey. Calling didn’t work, frames froze, busy signals popped up. Some of the hired talent defended Airtime, saying it had definitely been working, bug-free, earlier. Sean Parker even issued this telling statement during the scramble: “Thank God you guys are funny, because we’re screwed right now.”

airtime press conferenceSo how’s it working in real life? Over the course of the day I’ve used it on and off, and all things considered it works fine. There’s been the occasional A/V syncing issue, and I’ve heard the same from a few other early users.

An interesting first day for Airtime, and reactions have been something of a mixed bag. Now, we’ll have to wait and see if the early buzz — both good and bad — will translate into a product with staying power. Honestly, my gut (and many other guts) says no: It’s a novelty, and one that we’ve already tried. Safety precautions aside, I can’t help by wonder “why?” Is there a real need being filled here? All that said, if there were two minds that could spin this into something, it’s Parker and Fanning, and coming updates like multi-chat capabilities could help Airtime find surer footing.

If nothing else, there’s this: Look who tried out the new app today.

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