Rob ‘CmdrTaco’ Malda
Chief Strategist and Editor-at-Large, WaPo Labs

Airtime and the air up there

Airtime lets users chat anonymously, but is built on Facebook's network

Rob ‘CmdrTaco’ Malda

Rob Malda is the chief strategist and editor-at-large for the Washington Post’s WaPo Labs team.  Prior to that, under the pseudonym "CmdrTaco," Rob created the popular “news for nerds” Web site Slashdot.org, which he ran for 14 years. He periodically offers opinion and analysis on a range of topics, including media, technology and innovation.

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ChatRoulette made waves a few years ago by letting two anonymous strangers engage in a real-time video chat. The service did almost exactly what you would expect. Early in its life we saw YouTube videos of artists drawing strangers and improvising songs. Watching Ben Folds sing to strangers on a giant screen live in concert was pretty amazing.

Of course, like so many wonderful things on the Internet, it didn’t take long for ChatRoulette to become a vehicle for pornography. ChatRoulette became almost synonymous with the phrase: men exposing their genitals.

Airtime aims to clean up The Wild West that is ChatRoulette by coupling itself to your Facebook profile. Your name isn’t revealed to your chat partner unless you choose to allow it. Instead, you are shown only your shared interests. This system needs work. It kept connecting me to people also born in May, as if I would be able to connect with someone based on when our parents got frisky. Then I was connected to a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers ... because I like the Detroit Tigers.

I connected several times to empty chairs. Usually I got silent faces that skimmed my interests and disconnected. And I was always connected to men — not one woman. But that wasn’t surprising given the early-adopter nature of a platform announced days ago.

On the upside, I didn’t see any porn. So, maybe the chance to meet new friends is out there. The ability to read facial cues and communicate in real-time is compelling, and the format is like speed dating for friends.

The question, at least to my mind, boils down to whether and how people want to engage with strangers visually. I am generally an introvert. In other words, I’m happy to meet with strangers, but I’m not the type to go to a club. I like meeting new people and discussing shared interests. I found myself removing stale interests from my profile, and hoping that my next connection would lead me to an interesting chat, and hopefully not one about the Steelers.

I’m still waiting.

Washington Post Co. Chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook's board of directors.

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