NICK DOUGLAS — When I first heard that young San Franciscan Justin Kan started broadcasting his life on video 24 hours a day at Justin.tv, I thought, "so what?" Like many others, I just assumed someone had already been doing this. I was half-right; camgirls and bugged homes date back to the 90s. But by strapping the camera to Justin's head, the creators kicked this show up a notch. Still, what's so compelling about a 20-something guy in San Francisco? Why are 353 people watching Justin talk to his friends right now in his living room? After watching the show, reading the buzz, and talking to Justin in person, I've got a good idea why.
All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again. The first dot-com boom brought 24-hour shows such as independent blogger JenniCam (whose webcam posted a photo of her in her room every 30 seconds) and We Live in Public (which filled an apartment with cameras for a more art-project style of broadcast). Both ended: JenniCam because she was just done, and We Live in Public because it was part of an unsustainable dot-com boom, using then-sketchy technology.
The first giddy age of Internet video is over, but live feeds haven't disappeared. Scads of live porn sites feature camgirls in booths chatting for free and stripping for pay. Many amateur broadcasters stream a webcam from their desk or pointing out their windows.
But these are all part-time. Office webcams go dark; camgirls clock out. Justin.tv is the first team to take an all-day show mobile, transforming it from "here's me when I'm at my desk" to "here's me everywhere." This has several consequences:
All the world's the scene. Justin has free run of the beautiful city of San Francisco, and he takes drives (Vehicle sharing company Zipcar is a sponsor) into Silicon Valley. Air travel will mean a few hours of downtime, but Justin says he's willing to sacrifice that in order to "go on tour."
Justin.tv has a cast of thousands. Everyone that Justin sees, we see. The local cafe waitress can be a regular character. So can every drooling fan who bumps into him. This breaks open the show; a viewer doesn't need to like Justin and his entourage to like the show.
Everyone wants in. That cast of thousands aren't all content to be extras. I met Justin at a bar this week, seven days into his live broadcast. He told my friend Melissa that he hadn't yet been kissed on camera. Melissa solved that. As a member of MTV's The Real World remarked, when you're on camera, you feel obligated to step out and be interesting. In fact, that instinct drives shows like TRW. The result is constant drama and happy viewers.
24/7 means warts and all. Speaking of The Real World, ever notice how network TV's reality shows are as heavily edited as any scripted story? There's still a lack of rawness. Justin takes his camera into the bathroom. And as for everyone's favorite question:
Yes, he'll have sex on camera. It's been cute to watch his responses change; by Friday he had moved from "no" to telling Wired News "Maybe we could do it with a half-camera." No, I don't know what a half-camera is either, but by last night he was telling those of use gathered around him that he'd almost definitely have a camera pointed at him during sex (with a girl, if you're wondering).
He's kind of a dick. At least his friends are: they make fun of some people who appear on the show; they swear about their business contacts. The viewers are even worse; one launched a blog giving hilariously cruel nicknames to everyone with a cameo; it was decided that I was a Jewish boy named ShalomBerry, and that Justin was cockblocking me from my friend Melissa. On the way back from meeting Melissa, Justin's crew tried to remember what she does. "She helps sex workers document cases of police brutality," one said about "that girl." "Then she posts it for guys to jerk off to." (The former, yes. The latter, um, no.)
One blogger worried about this behavior, calling it "the dumb leading the dumber, the desperate leading the more desperate, the fame-hungry feeding the fame-starved." But who of us hasn't had such a conversation about a stranger? We're all dicks. The only difference is that when these guys gossip, the subjects can hear it.
Of course, they have to watch the stream to catch it. And that's the draw of Justin.tv: If you turn it off, you'll miss something. As one of the entourage said on the show today, "The interesting things aren't scheduled." That's a problem, but it's also the show's biggest boon: the only way to catch it all is to keep it on for the rest of your life.