Once upon a time, a humble click of a button could send a web service live. A couple of e-mails out or a post on a message board might be sufficient to draw the interest of a few early adopters.
No longer. Somehow, somewhere along the line, certain startup launches and demo days have become more like celebrity-studded movie premieres or gallery openings. We all go and gawk. We might stay. We might leave. But we’re all there for a show.
And nowhere is the shift of technology industry from mainstream culture’s periphery to its center more evident than in the story of Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning — who are debuting their much-anticipated (and more family-friendly!) version of ChatRoulette today.
More than 15 years ago, Fanning and Parker were just teenagers trolling chat rooms. “We were both hackers,” Parker said in New York today. “We were interested in computer security. The goal was some sort of miscreant behavior…. We were basically cyber criminals.”
Today, their lives are a world apart. Parker is a multi-billionaire, even factoring in Facebook’s recent declines. Their launch in a Chelsea warehouse right now has Martha Stewart in the front row and Jimmy Fallon as the MC.
“They’re the Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren of the Internet,” Fallon said, bringing them on-stage. Parker’s first call on Airtime during the demo was to television host and model Olivia Munn. The second was Snoop Dogg.
But the celebs didn’t save Airtime from an embarrassing five-minute stretch where the product didn’t work in demo mode (the real product hadn’t gone live yet). A call to Snoop Dogg took a few tries. When Joel McHale, a TV host came on, the product failed to work for several minutes. “Whose ass are you going to fire?” he asked Parker on-stage.
“This is not how it really operates, I swear to fucking God,” Munn said. “You have to go onto it, use it and then write your blog posts.”
It eventually started working again and McHale got on a call with Seinfeld’s Julia Louis Dreyfus, who then got on a call with The Hangover’s Ed Helms, who then got on a call with Alicia Keys.
In a later call, Helms tried to dial Airtime’s headquarters in San Francisco. But they didn’t pick up. “Your own office isn’t answering?!” McHale joked to Parker. They didn’t show off the real, live mode where you’re paired with strangers.
Even though the packaging their work comes in today is far more extravagant, Airtime is still weirdly true to Parker’s and Fanning’s teenage selves. “We felt like the only people in this world who had an interest in screwing with other people’s lives,” Parker said of originally meeting Fanning.
He later said that with the loss of anonymity and the rise of Facebook’s social graph, the web has changed in a few ways for the worst. “Nothing spontaneous ever seems to happen on the Internet,” he said. “There’s no room for randomness. The social graph is actually somewhat stifling. Your ability for self-expression is actually limited when all of your friends are watching what you do.”
Airtime feels like Parker’s grown-up attempt to reach back into his miscreant past. The big question though is whether a celeb-packed launch will help Airtime have as huge a cultural impact as the humble premiere Napster had. Time will tell.
For more on Airtime, check out our coverage: