Although the novelty of “life-casting” has worn off to some degree and the mainstream media hype surrounding it has abated, that hasn’t stopped more and more people from cracking open a laptop and sharing their previously private moments with the world, live and unedited. But while broadcasting worldwide has never been easier, turning on that webcam can turn you into Pandora 2.0. And not the hip web radio Pandora, but the tragic Greek Pandora.
The most obvious complications of life-casting revolve around privacy and as such, aren’t particularly new to anyone online or any public personality. Precautions, however, are advised. For instance, Justin.tv, has clear and concise safety guidelines, built-in moderation tools and has even set up an email specifically for abuse complaints. “We make sure that people are as safe as possible online,” Justin Kan explained in a phone conversation.
No stranger to pranks, Kan famously endured some initial web-enabled hazing of his own. But he’s learned that with time and the careful (not) feeding of trolls, the problem subsides. “Griefers swarm to what’s new,” Kan explained. “After two weeks it’s over, and they’ve moved on.”
Now that online video is getting more social, people are creating their own stories around favorite characters, as with the iJustine fan site dedicated to Justine Ezarik. But what happens when those stories start to get a little racy? “Whenever I talk about sex I get more viewers,” fellow Justin.tv life-caster Sarah Meyers confided in a chat between games of frisbee last month (broadcast live, of course). It can also provide a creepy subtext to almost any interaction online, especially since the life-caster is vulnerable to privacy intrusion, and viewers who hide behind anonymity, real or perceived, can be lewd boors or worse.
Ezarik herself said the experience overall has been “pretty positive.” “But you have to keep it in the back of your mind that something could happen,” she told me. Her fan site felt it necessary to make it clear in the about page that Ezarik will not strip for the camera, but it hasn’t stopped people from asking. “You can only hear some of these things so many times before you want to punch someone,” she lamented.
Annalee Newitz, co-editor with Charlie Anders of She’s Such a Geek, a collection of stories and essays by women about science, technology and the culture surrounding them, pointed out in an online chat that these new, non-nude live broadcasters are seen in a context dominated by pornography. “Literally, these guys are confused because there is a formal or structural similarity between the two types of narrative,” she suggested.
And it’s not just the life-caster that becomes the target of skeevy objectification or pranksters, playful and otherwise, but the people they interact with live online. Ezarik related how she has had to jump into conversations to keep people from saying a phone number out loud while she was broadcasting, lest a viewer interject themselves into a stranger’s life. “I’ve started turning it off more, because it’s driving me crazy,” she admitted.
Maybe there’s something to be learned from the Hollywood set. A reality show producer, while adding a layer of artifice, might have some ideas about how to punch up the interest of a show while keeping an eye on local wiretap laws, for example. A publicist would likely have some tips on how the papparazzi- and stalker-hounded celebs stay “on” at all times while guarding their privacy.
Is the appeal of life-casters their accessibility? And if so, do efforts to manage the experience come at the price of authenticity? While the architecture that supports all these video streams has proven scalable to support broad audiences, the established etiquette mediating interactions between viewers and the viewed has not yet caught up. Good thing that working out those kinks makes for compelling content.