Airtime was ahead of its time when it first launched in 2012. The site’s objective was to reintroduce real-life quality time between friends through video, patching holes the internet had left in human communication. But as a website-only video chat platform predating today’s ubiquitous smartphones and high-speed data connections, it was overly ambitious, and the project caved. 
Now, as other companies start to catch up with their mission, Airtime has relaunched as an app. They predict a new era in which people – sick of the contrived performances of social media, and equally exhausted by sharing their social lives with thousands of acquaintances – have retreated to the comfort of their true friends. Providing cocoons of small-scale group chats where users can explore the vast offerings of the internet together, Airtime is reimagining communications through a lens of intimacy and authenticity, catering to a generation of young people that find the old ways of socialising tired and irrelevant.
Initially launched as a website by Sean Parker of Napster and Facebook fame, Airtime was reborn in early 2016, in the form of an iOS and Android app – a six-way video chat platform centred around the idea of naturalising video chat and facilitating co-consumption.  The app is structured to feel more like a casual, intimate hangout than a formal discussion; a user creates a ‘room’ and invites friends to join it, after which the room exists for its members to drop in and out of at will.
People tune into Airtime for lengthy sessions, sharing various media with their room to experience jointly, with platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud built into the app to enable a smooth, integrated experience. “You all consume that content at the same time, and that creates a very different kind of experience,” says Dominic Gallello, director of strategy at Airtime. “It’s not a purely functional, scheduled communications app.” 
The live-streaming industry has taken off
Airtime (2016) ©
Social media has long been a place for people to construct their sense of self – be that political Facebook status rants or Instagram food diaries – but the format of choice is shifting. Video is expected to account for 69% of all consumer internet traffic by 2017, overshadowing photos, audio, and the written word. With 85% of 13- to 24-year-olds tuning into YouTube, and ten billion Snapchat videos viewed everyday, video has become a defining aspect of the way people communicate and self-define online.  As the go-to medium for younger users, video production has transitioned from the realm of professionals to an amateur-friendly endeavour, with platforms like YouTube democratising who can create and share content.
As barriers to entry were gradually torn down, video has progressed to its next logical step – from pre-recorded and professional content to live broadcast. Apps like Meerkat and Periscope let people prop up their phones and stream a real-time, public channel of whatever they’re doing, no matter how banal and unspectacular.  “There is no better way to experience a place right now than through live video,” Periscope says on its blog. “We’ve always imagined Periscope as a visual pulse of what’s happening right now.” 
The one-to-many experience [of other live-streaming platforms] often feels flat. When you’re going live with your friends on Airtime, it’s a conversation. The stream itself ebbs and flows naturallyDominic Gallello, director of strategy at Airtime
Periscope’s appeal centres around its unstructured content and the ability to capture authentic pieces of real life, in real-time – like when users opened their apps to live-stream a fire and partial building collapse in Manhattan.  Periscope was invented to make filming, sharing and viewing live video as easy as sending a tweet, reworking the webcam era for a mobile society and expanding into the world beyond a user’s desktop. Since its launch, the live-stream industry has blown up – Periscope was bought by Twitter for nearly $100 million, and Instagram and Facebook are edging in on the action with their own services. 
Airtime suggests that, in a new age of live-streaming, people have come to value presence in video – the simple, authentic feeling of company and communication – more than its purpose. In the same way that spending an afternoon lounging at home with friends doesn’t require a constant barrage of intense conversation, members of Airtime rooms can spend hours within video streams without demanding thrilling performances. Plugging into the ‘realness’ that a live-stream affords is more important, and for communication to be as natural and life-like as possible, it needs to embrace the unspectacular. “The one-to-many experience [of other live-streaming platforms] often feels flat,” says Gallello. “It’s someone in front of a camera that has to think about what they’re going to say beforehand, that has to plan out and schedule what they’re going to do. Whereas, when you’re going live with your friends on Airtime, it’s a conversation. The stream itself ebbs and flows naturally.” 
Airtime is reintroducing intimacy to social media
Bradley Huchteman, Creative Commons (2015) ©
Insights and opportunities
With everyone from dystopian TV series Black Mirror to the charity sector warning of hollow social media interactions, Airtime’s mission statement taps into the collective psyche of an anxiety-ridden generation.  The app alludes to what many people who rely on Facebook and Instagram for their identities are hesitant to admit – that social media communication isn’t always as deep and sincere as we’d like, and in fact, can even make us feel more lonely.  “When we look at the world, all of its social communications tools are wonderful at connecting us, but they don't really allow us to communicate meaningfully in a way that’s congruent to how we communicate in real life,” says Gallello. “The world of ‘likes’ and comments is great, but they’re an artificial means of communication.” 
Airtime instead aims for the unpredictable, real-life communication that live-streaming was originally striving for, but lost along the way. “Everything is moving towards this real-time experience, where you’re actually engaged and participating in that experience altogether,” says Gallello. “So we see this new age of communication being driven by the prospect of multi-party live video, enabling people to have spontaneous, intimate and serendipitous conversations just as you would in real life.” 
Rather than deliberate one-to-one communication, or performative one-to-many live-streaming, Airtime centres around co-consumption – the fun and intimacy of shared watching and listening with peers. While other live-streaming apps centre on the content as the sole source of entertainment, co-consumption plays on the idea that when people share content with friends – an act that dominates much of the online sphere – they also want to see the reaction it provokes. Witnessing how a friend reacts to a shared YouTube video, SoundCloud song, or article imbues this process with the genuine sentiment that’s lacking from an emoji or ‘like’ in response. And rather than making a platform choice between the dynamic engagement of live-streams or the careful craft of external professional content, Airtime consolidates the best of both these worlds and users mix them freely.
Social communication tools... don't really allow us to communicate meaningfully in a way that’s congruent to how we communicate in real life. The world of ‘likes’ and comments is great, but they’re an artificial means of communicationDominic Gallello, director of strategy at Airtime
The app also recognises that, like a comments section, the afterlife of content is often what people relish most.  Airtime reverses the traditional structure of live feeds, in that it allows people to consume content that’s not necessarily live – in the form of news, videos, and songs shared in the designated chatroom – but the live reactions that follow are where things really take off for those involved. The content is bounced around between six people at a virtual table: discussing, praising, trashing and debating everything the internet has to offer.
Currently, live-streaming is very much the domain of Gen Z and the tail-end of Gen Y – 70% of users of live-streaming app YouNow are under 24.  But while this younger set was once focused on being YouTube famous, Airtime suggests a turnaround in attitudes towards social media communications.
“We’re seeing social behaviour come full circle,” says Hannah VanderWeide, social media marketing lead at Airtime. “We all initially started out in real life, enjoying our tight-knit groups of friends and spending our time with them. As social networks evolved, we ended up communicating to an audience of maybe 1,000 friends on Facebook or 500 friends on Instagram. Airtime, however, is a platform for you to really engage in dynamic conversation with your real friends.”  As people crave a trade from sensational, dramatic content on bigger social networks, to toned-down, authentic peer-to-peer conversation, Airtime is the platform catering to that shift.
Mira Kopolovic is a writer and researcher with an MA in creative industries, which focused on artist-brand collaborations. She spends her spare time poring over dystopian literature.
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