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Sean Parker relaunches Airtime, a video chat room for watching – together

TechCrunch TechCrunch 21/04/2016 Josh Constine

Social networks make us lonely, and messaging feels transactional. There’s still no vibrant, real-time place to hang out with friends online. That’s why four years after Sean Parker’s chat roulette website Airtime fell flat, he’s reviving it as a mobile chat room where friends can share photos, music, and videos that they all experience simultaneously.

Launching on iOS and Android today, Airtime wants to simulate what it’s like to be in the same room with your favorite people, instead of divided by asynchronous News Feeds where we lob Likes at each other. Parker tells me that unlike broadcast social media, “people can have the expectation of privacy, intimacy, and closeness – a kid of humanity rather than everything having to be some form of theater or performance.”

At its core, Airtime is about adding 10, 20, or even 50 friends to a room that becomes your persistent third-space online. Pop your head in any time, friends will get notified, and suddenly you’re all talking and experiencing content as if you were crowded around a desktop computer together. You can video chat with up to 6 friends at once and watch everyone’s live thumbnail reactions to what you share.

Airtime is complex to the point of being daunting, though it’s also flexible enough to encompass most ways we express ourselves. Parker says he’ll be patient no matter how long it takes to grow a community for Airtime. But if Facebook Live and Snapchat Chat 2.0 are any indicator, real-time content and a sense of co-presence are where social is going.

You can watch our quick video demo below

Off The Air, Under The Radar

Airtime was founded in 2011 and raised almost $33 million. It premiered a year later with a glitzy, celebrity-filled New York launch event. There was just one problem. “The product didn’t work” Parker admits. Demos crashed, the Facebook invite system refused to function,  and the experience of intimately co-watching with a stranger seemed awkward. No one used it.

Parker tells me “I wish I hadn’t been forced to launch the original version of Airtime”, but he felt required to by “This philosophy of rapid iteration and that you have to put something in the market.” It hadn’t been thoroughly tested enough for scalability or market fit.

So Parker shut it down, parted ways with his former Napster colleague and Airtime co-founder Shawn Fanning, and acquired startup studio K2 Labs to help rebuild something people would actually want.

To avoid the press, Airtime tested concepts and versions of its apps in foreign countries under different names. Fortune discovered one of its tests called OK Hello that just did the chat room, not the simultaneous content consumption. But now the full version is ready for its closeup.

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