If simply posting photos on Facebook is linked with neurotic traits, what kind of person is willing to broadcast his or her life to strangers? Surely, they must be looking to fill a void or fulfill some kind of digital fetish. Or maybe they're just famous and we don't know it yet.
We live in a voyeuristic culture, demonstrated by our love for hidden camera pranks, reality TV shows, and the incessant need to stick a GoPro on anything that goes anywhere. So it's no surprise that mobile livestreaming has become popular. What is surprising is that no one has done it well yet.
UpClose, unfortunately, was immediately disqualified from my test by the apparent need for people to follow you. I tried conducting a couple streams, but no one joined and I really don't have the mental strength to grow another social community. I still want to mention it, because the interface and overall messaging was pretty good.
If UpClose was the Facebook of Livestreaming, YouNow seemed more like AdultFriendFinder—except its messaging is pretty targeted to teens.
To expose myself (Not literally. I remained fully clothed. Important detail.) to the livestreaming community, I conducted some field research of my own.
In YouNow, I joined a few live streams, which had been tagged under different generic topics, such as #girls, #boys, #comedy, and #ask_questions.
One was a teenage boy who had thousands of viewers, but all he seemed to be doing was making phone calls. (Which means this guy had two cell phones.) Other viewers, in the accompanying live chat, were begging the broadcaster to share his cell phone number with them. I felt very creepy, and left promptly 40 seconds after joining.
I ventured to #comedy to find two dudes (again, looking like teenagers) who were playing Xbox and not paying attention to the thousands of viewers sending them heart emojis and asking them to follow back on Snapchat.
Obviously, there are practical applications for mobile livestreaming. One livestreaming service, Bambuser, was crucial for broadcasting Egypt's revolution in 2011. Mobile livestreaming can help provide a real-time snapshot into places that may not be accessible otherwise, offering a raw, uncut view of a situation. But for each livestreaming site aimed to break news, there are five that are for nonsensical chatter.
Motives for livestreaming vary. As with anything, many are motivated by money. However, it's much more interesting when people do it for free.
After much hesitation, I created my own YouNow livestream, under the popular #ask_questions topic. The feeling of broadcasting your face while the viewers only send back text was extremely unnerving to me. The imbalance of vulnerability (me: very vulnerable, viewers: not at all) did not match any method of communication I've used previously.
When people joined the stream, I asked, "Can you hear me?" to which I received a text reply back "yes." I felt like I was talking into a void that somehow responded. I had one viewer who told me she was from England and 64 years old. She said she uses YouNow every day, and claimed it was a great way to meet people and also to get over her fear of flowers. I quickly realized I was being fucked with, and she then told me she was actually 16, at which point I exited the app, put down my phone, and washed my hands of livestreaming, possibly forever.
I popped into another chat to ask another lady why she used this app. She looked Latina and maybe in her late 20s, early 30s. She was just holding the phone in front of her face as she fielded questions such as "what's your Snapchat?"
When I asked her why she uses YouNow, she told me in a sarcastic tone, "because like I can rub this like positive energy off on people and show that life is not too serious." There was more truth to that than I think she gave credit.
She then returned to her normal voice, simply stating, "it's fun meeting new people and talking to other people." The video then froze and I think she may have left the conversation. This is one of the downfalls of livestreaming versus face-to-face contact. She had been livestreaming for two entire hours before I joined, so it's also possible she was just tired.
Miles, an avid YouNow user, reporting from his room, provided a very succinct explanation why he livestreamed.
"It's fucking boring at my house. Then it's like 'Miles just logged into YouNow.' What the fuck could it hurt?" he said.
Livestreaming is an interesting technology in its simplicity. From my own experience, people like to do it as a way to meet others, appease their loneliness, or feed a desperate thirst for attention. Given the green-ness of the livestreaming space, there isn't research into how related it may be to vain personality traits. Give it time.
In the meantime, let's embrace livestreaming for the non-reciprocal communication as it is. In the olden days, you would need a physical booth, a one-way mirror, and a lack of respect to participate. Now, all you need is a cell phone. Once a geeks-only technology, livestreaming has quietly become part of modern culture.
For example, take this Childish Gambino video, where lyrics are shown as chat between a viewer and a "cam model." This would've been a very sketchy video concept a couple years ago, and unintelligible five years ago. We may go on to compare mobile livestreaming to Snapchat: a multibillion dollar business that can help you expose yourself, without actually exposing yourself. And before you make another joke about how lame livestreaming is, I urge you to try it yourself. What the fuck could it hurt?