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Live broadcasters find their audience online

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Like most writers, I work best alone; so it’s a little odd having 24 people watching me type this.

I’m hanging out on YouNow, one of a growing field of live video broadcasting sites, and I’ve managed to score 30 “likes” just by showing up (i.e. clicking to activate my webcam). For honesty’s sake, I’ve stationed myself in the channel labeled #bored, and within a few minutes of going on air, I’ve attracted an audience, climbing the charts from #30 to #21 in short order. I must be doing something right. Specifically: sitting here. Being bored. (Wasn’t I supposed to be writing something?)

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Some of my viewers want details about my mustache — how long it took me to grow, how I groom it. Others want to know what that song is that I’m listening to. A user from Saudi Arabia with no profile picture and a screen name I cannot read claims to have fallen in love with me. Another person found my Instagram and informed me I look like a “bozo.” Only one of my viewers is bothering to ask the question I keep repeating: Why do you come here?

“It’s a ramily,” he types into the chat box adjacent to the video player. I think he meant “family.”

Compared to the vitriolic exchanges and flame wars common to the Internet’s comment threads, the easy-going hangouts observable on YouNow are indeed quite friendly (and quite young), and their participants are close enough to have inside jokes and running conversations. And you can quickly sense in YouNow’s #singing, #gaming, #girls, #guys, and #lgbt channels (among many others), that small virtual social scenes have formed and stuck. This generally chill vibe may, in part, be a result of the service disabling a feature that once allowed users to downvote others off the site (which one user told me worked only to foster bullying), but it has more to do with the platform itself.

There’s a unique type of intimacy that comes with lifecasting – a term made popular by Justin Kan, who, in 2007, launched the now-defunct but once formative live broadcasting site Justin.tv, which has since morphed into the wildly popular live gaming platform Twitch. On YouNow, aspiring singers belt away in their bedrooms, stoned teen rappers stumble through dicey freestyles and collapse into giggling fits, and LGBT teens in scattered suburbs gossip and cruise Instagram the way my friends and I would stalk the mall back in high school. It’s the kind of natural community building that ought to be the Internet’s specialty.

But personal broadcasting also satisfies another of our most tenacious Internet tendencies: voyeurism. My 31 viewers weren’t promised much out of the experience of watching me type, but that didn’t stop them from showing up (or falling in love, apparently). Some YouNowers stoke their viewership by energetically bopping through each session like a rolling Q&A, with each answer giving rise to more questions. Others, like the two young men in Kuwait I watched primp in the front seat of a car before heading out for the night, are simply letting the world come along for the ride.

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I’ve found that no matter what people are doing – even if it’s next to nothing – there’s a little thrill built into watching, one that rivals being watched.

As our devices and processors grow more accommodating to live video, the online landscape is expanding and taking many forms. Twitch has dominated the gaming angle, allowing players to broadcast or watch live gameplay while chatting. It has the fourth highest traffic overall online, and was bought by Amazon in September for $970 million. Google’s Hangouts on Air has leaned more social, recently introducing an “Applause” function that allows viewers to give real-time feedback on active broadcasts (call it quality control). And services like Livestream and Ustream have made an impact as impromptu channels for breaking news, proving indispensable throughout the Ferguson protests, and even during the aftermath of the Marathon bombings, when users pointed their webcams to broadcast their police scanners.

Smaller live video chat services like Tinychat host themed channels where multiple users can join in via video or text, or simply lurk and listen. (Tinychat seems especially useful if you happen to have a bevy of weed-related topics you’d like to hash out.) Still others like Omegle take a cue from the controversial (but still spinning) Chat Roulette, which automatically pairs random users for unpredictable (prediction: You’ll see a penis) video chats.

And while YouTube has primarily made its name hosting recorded video content, its YouTube Live service (for broadcasting large live events) and its integration with Google’s Hangouts on Air are attempts to seize some of the swelling live broadcasting market.

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On paper, the notion that more people are flocking to a form of chat primarily fueled by one’s image would seem like further verification of online narcissism, the product of an all-about-me culture that routinely mistakes the quotidian for content. But it could just as easily be taken as evidence that the full connective potential of the Internet is close to realization, and that live broadcasting is more uncharted territory that we’re cultivating into a comfort zone.

But let’s not get too comfortable. One of my favorite singers on YouNow was a cherubic middle-age crooner, who stuck out not only for his age and his off-key bellow, but for his repertoire, which was heavy on the Manilow. As a few friends and I took in his not-so-dulcet tones, we got to Googling his screen name, which led us straight to his OKCupid page. Within his photos there we discovered a JPEG advertisement for his wedding singing business, and at the bottom of that we found his real name.

It was when we cycled that back to Google that we found his sex offender registry info, his rape and child pornography possession charges, his divorce records, a satellite view of his house, and pretty much anything else we’d want to know if we could bear to continue looking. Some weeks later, he posted to Twitter that he’d been banned from YouNow. “For what I do not know.” Suffice it to say that Barry Manilow is now ruined for me.

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It was a good (or, let’s say “effective”) reminder that, for better or worse, there’s only so much that a webcam can show us. Online and on camera, even if we’re just sitting there #bored, we’re putting on a show.


Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.