Airtime’s Folly: The Awkward Technology Of People Discovery

In Hollywood lexicon a meet cute is the serendipitous crash between strangers. Usually a man and a woman, the chance encounter ignites the plot and the ensuing laughter and romance. Jack stumbled upon a wilting Rose moments before she leapt off the (then intact) Titanic. Harry initially met Sally in need of a ride to New York City. And Sean Parker spawned his longtime business partnership with Shawn Fanning discussing computer security in a chat room.

The universe has an affinity for coincidence. So why not cull this cosmic co-mingling through technology? By matching strangers based on similarities and interests, companies like Mr. Parker’s Airtime hope to harness serendipity.

Equal parts Skype and Zuckerberg, with a hint of eHarmony, Airtime hopes to expand and explode the social graph. Where social networks remain remarkably confined to coworkers, classmates and college buddies, people discovery offers a way of interrupting routine by using the gravity of shared interest rather than geographic contingency.

Airtime introduces us to “Talk to Someone.” This novel feature pairs up fresh faces using criteria like interests, location, and acquaintances. To protect against the wrong kind of people (think Chatroulette) and to ensure a healthy amount of privacy (you probably shouldn’t be using this), users remain anonymous to each other until an “+Add” request is sent and an acceptance made.

But isn’t “expanding the social graph” just a clumsy way of saying meeting new people? Aren’t people discovery apps, the ones that tell you if like-minded users are nearby, just a creepy kind of ice-breaker? (Text message: “Hey! My ambient GPS mobile technology is telling me that you are also at this conference, let’s bust open our social graphs together…what’s your name?”)

To paraphrase the Easter egg at the beginning of Fight Club: couldn’t all this be replaced by walking up to a person and starting a conversation?

For the timid and the less extroverted, perhaps this kind of unplugged boldness is frighteningly difficult. But to sell an Apple-esque chatting service as a ticket to whimsical friendship seems misguided. The random delight of misadventure, the kind of accidental spark that we crave in monotonous modernity is precisely the kind of thing people discovery is not. In the process of gaining the digital grip, we simultaneously lose our human touch.

Still, Airtime, Highlight, Foursquare, and the Facebook-acquired Glancee, shouldn’t be seen as digital shields against rejection. That would be too harsh. The concept of social discovery—the exposure to things that fascinate—works quite well. When the discovery aspect turns on cultural and commercial products, as in Pandora, Netflix, StumbleUpon, and Twitter, users are willing to take risks, step outside ready-made preferences and cultivate an authentic taste.

But when the thing that is discovered is not a thing at all, but a human relationship, something like happenstance isn’t fostered. Rather, it is a contrived politeness like the paralyzing inauthenticity of a bad first date.

Marketed as if a bubbly Alexia Tsostis or a BFF Justin Timberlake is just waiting for you to sign on, reality reminds us to expect a sea of woozy, disembodied, unflattering faces. As the editors of the literary magazine, N+1 point out, it is impossible to maintain eye contact using video chat.

In the provocative and much talked about documentary, Catfish, the nether realm of the internet persona is explored. The Facebook meet cute swiftly spirals downward, resembling a strange, perverse nightmare. More than one character realizes that to look at a person’s pixelated flesh is far from gazing into their eyes.

While people discovery may satisfy some urge to connect, the kind of serendipity they promise will rarely be found behind a screen.

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8 thoughts on “Airtime’s Folly: The Awkward Technology Of People Discovery

  1. I LOVE the tongue-in-cheek promo — hysterical.

    But of course, I see potential problems with this…opening yet another door for people to “anonymously” explore relationships without fear of discovery from their current significant others. Of course, I realize there already are many, many, MANY venues for that … 😦

    • Hozz says:

      Mikalee, I think the service is trying to satisfy the need that many of us have to “connect.” I use quotes cuz I think people are looking for different things: romance, pen pals, stalker material, conversation. The whole anonymity aspect is weird too. Like you mention, it has the potential for all sorts of elicit behavior. The idea of expanding your social network outside of your geographic space sounds good in theory, but I think people discovery as it exists now is just too lame.

  2. wendymc12 says:

    I completely agree with Hozz. The theory is good, but not the way it currently exists.

  3. It’s probably my age, but I find “connecting” with anyone through the cumbersome logistics of social media sites laughable. About a month ago, someone I encountered in an exchange of YouTube comments said I should friend him on Facebook so he could provide me with some material I wanted without our having to exchange “real” contact information.

    So, I set up a Facebook account. If it weren’t so frustrating, it would be hilarious.

    Every few days, Facebook presents me with a new herd of people I might want to “friend,” giving me ONLY the option of “friending” them. That is, there is no way to say, “I don’t want these (I didn’t even like them in high school or college) and I don’t want you (Facebook) to suggest any more.”

    Meanwhile, although I have “friended” the one person I wanted to contact, I can’t find any information in Facebook’s “help” files to explain how I get to see the material my one “friend” has for me. Each time I log on, Facebook attacks again with more information on how I can “find more friends,” but it won’t help me find the one I want to find.

    I’m going to have to “friend” a live teenager, face to face, in order to get out of this mess.

  4. susiemorrow says:

    Interesting, wonder if the wonders of the site do some sort of verification of the individuals registering? Just wondering because of the pseudonymous or anonymous aspect of it all – of course there are potentially ways to be psuedononymous whilst still offering some way of identifying yourself so its not all a bit ‘dodgy’…

    • Hozz says:

      Hey Susie, yes it does. Airtime uses your Facebook profile as log-in. You can choose to stay anonymous with the people you chat with. And then you can reveal more about yourself.

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