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What We Can Learn From Sean Parker’s Failure at Social Video


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Ryan Tate says never hype your product:

The much-hyped video chat service Airtime is now officially a failure. As reported by Fortune, Airtime’s high-profile team — which includes Napster and Facebook impresario Sean Parker — has left the service in the dust, quietly replacing it with a revamped social video contraption called OkHello.

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The Airtime team has already gotten at least one thing right. They launched OkHello without the ridiculous hype that surrounded the arrival of Airtime — hype that I personally contributed when I profileda pricey and elaborate effort to engineer a viral video that could promote the service.

But the problems with social video go well beyond too much hype. Video is an emotionally taxing medium. If you use it, you have to worry about not only your appearance but how your surroundings look, and if you want to make the most of the medium, you need a good command of your voice, your face, the camera, and the microphone. That sets a high bar for participation, and it can impede the sort of virality that helped non-video social networks like Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter take off. Typing is so much easier than shooting a video.

Chatroulette tried to mitigate this stress by providing anonymity, but that also encouraged lewd behavior. Viddy tackled the problem by aggressively recruiting users to its service — but most of them never came back. Airtime hoped that its $33-million hype machine, plus an algorithm that matched up like-minded strangers, would finally crack the nut. But it didn’t.

What’s the ultimate solution? Recent history indicates that one good option is to keep interactions short. Twitter’s Vine limits videos to six seconds, an approach mimicked by Instagram’s 15-second video service. The short length makes it much easier to control what goes into a video. Shooting a video becomes more like posing for a still photo.

Others are finding some success by bridging the gap between video chat and video publishing. Ustream has grown both traffic and revenue by letting ordinary people stream live video to both friends and strangers, who talk back primarily via text channels. Bittorrent, the San Francisco company behind the ubiquitous file-sharing/piracy tool, is poised to launch a peer-to-peer streaming service that should make this kind of sharing smoother, sharper, and less expensive.

Social video is tricky but as shown above, there are ways to succeed.

But it isn't easy.

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