The Penis-Shaped Shadow Hanging Over Airtime

Chatroulette was a total flash phenomenon, connecting people all over the world through video. Airtime, the video network from Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, is trying to capture some of that magic. But. posted on

There was always a shadow hanging over Chatroulette, and it was in the shape of penis. At least half of all encounters on Chatroulette were not with the smiling face of another human, but with a penis. Drooping or erect, hanging alone or being gently stroked by a hand. It’s part of what killed it. And it’s something that Sean and Shawn (Parker and Fanning, of Facebook and Napster fame, respectively) very much want to avoid with Airtime, their new video chat and sharing service that’s somewhere between Chatroulette — you can talk to semi-random people! — and Skype — but with your Facebook friends as a buddy list. Plus you can share videos you like with the person you’re chatting with.

Since Airtime is built on top of Facebook’s network, the brute force anonymity that allowed the faceless, nameless dick parade to march across Chatroulette without consequence is inherently gone — a name and a face (both presumably the real deal) is attached to any penis that exposes itself on Airtime. Still, Airtime is strident in vocalizing its approach to “safety”:

What is Airtime’s approach towards site safety?

Airtime is 100% committed to providing a safe environment and has a zero-tolerance approach towards inappropriate behavior as described in our Terms of Use. To minimize risk, Airtime only matches users under 18 with each other. All content harmful to minors, including content initiated by other minors, will be promptly escalated to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

Serious business. And what exactly is prohibited under its terms of use?

Inappropriate behavior
Nudity or partial nudity
Obscene or vulgar behavior
Sexually suggestive behavior
Violence
Animal cruelty
Drug use
Harassment or hate speech
Unauthorized advertising
Behavior that makes the reasonable User uncomfortable
Illegal activities
Submitting false reports of abuse or misconduct
Doing something that interferes with another’s uninterrupted use and enjoyment of Airtime
Impersonating other people
Recording content and distributing it without permission

Should you violate those things, Airtime has a “one-strike” rule for banning users. Also, Airtime is super happy to report you to the authorities: “We will report illegal behavior as circumstances warrant and fully cooperate with any law enforcement authorities or court order requiring or directing us to disclose the identity of our users.” Which is in stark contrast to, say, Twitter, whose default pose is to fight the law on behalf of users.

It is, interestingly, not pursuing a purely technological solution to keeping penises from appearing on the service at all. Or if it is, it isn’t working very well right now. The very first thing Brian Lam (old boss, forever friend) wanted to test out was Airtime’s “dick algorithm” — to see if Airtime pro-actively screened out images of penises, much in the same way YouTube automatically screens copyrighted material (though it’d obviously use a different filtering system, something like the penis equivalent of “face detection” tech that you see in consumer digital cameras. Imagine being the engineer developing that one.) As far as we can tell, there is no “dick algorithm.” I sent Brian a video of a dick (to be clear, not mine, and if you’re reading this Airtime enforcers, he ASKED FOR IT). I’m blurring it out, but this is what landed in his inbox:

(Update: According to the New York Times, Airtime does have “a number of systems, including facial-recognition software that sends up a flag if no faces are detected on camera and a ranking system that scores people based on their interactions.”

Update 2: Airtime periodically snaps screenshots of users to make sure the thing talking isn’t a penis. Maybe this particular penis looked like a face to Airtime when it emailed the shot to Brian. A face with a huge nose and a beard and really bushy eyebrows.

Update 3: So I’m told Airtime doesn’t screen calls or video messages between direct friends — hence the penis in Brian’s inbox. Meaning consenting adults are free to send crotch shots to each other, as long as they’re friends on Facebook)

Perhaps the user-driven enforcement is to allow couples and other consenting adults to show their pointier parts to the people who do want to see them — what’s the point of a social network you can’t fully live your life on, including the private® parts? — but it does leave Airtime dealing with the penis problem using an old-school approach, policing it partly through a combination of identity, shame and fear of being busted by the authorities. Which is pretty much the same way society polices penises in real life, on sidewalks or in cafes or phone booths (remember those?).

You’d almost expect, of anyone, these two to wield pure technology to achieve their idyllic penis-free paradise. Technology bending society, rather than social norms bounding technology. Instead, it sounds like, at least in this regard, Airtime is very much going to be like the real world: Pretty much everybody’s going to keep their pants on in public, but you never know when you might get flashed.

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