In 2009 a Russian teenager named Andrey Ternovskiy introduced an online video service called Chatroulette, which allowed perfect strangers to meet face to face over the Web. Its cleverest feature was the “next” button—a way for users to dump their conversational partner and connect with a different, random person somewhere else around the world. For many users it became an enthralling way to crisscross the globe in search of someone interesting, attractive, or perhaps just wearing a gorilla costume. The site went viral, drawing about 1.6 million monthly users in early 2010 before ultimately fading in the face of what can only be called the “penis problem”: the impulse of otherwise rational men to celebrate a webcam chat by exposing themselves.
Shawn Fanning, the creator of Napster, was immediately entranced by the service. “For the first time, you could actually surf people,” he says. Fanning decided to team up with his Napster co-founder, Sean Parker, who’s better known as the billionaire former Facebook president. Their startup, Airtime, is the result of almost two years of work. It made its debut in a New York City event on June 4 that was as star-filled (Jim Carrey and Julia Louis-Dreyfus made appearances) as it was glitch-ridden.