Justin.TV: It’s Atypical Life

Justin.TV is a week old, and is taking the web (or at least the hyper-interconnected Web 2.0 startup crowd) by storm.

The concept is simple enough: Justin Kan, 23, is broadcasting his life live on the web, 24/7, via streaming video. Watch him visit tech companies, and watch him use their bathrooms. Watch him chat up girls at a bar, and watch him sleep alone. It’s at once compelling and mind-numbingly dull.

I’ve had a hard time staying away.

What It’s Like

Bloggers and the mainstream media are already settling on some shorthand for Justin.TV. Comparisons to movies “Edtv and “Truman Show” are inevitable. Reality shows like MTV’s now quaint “The Real World” and “Big Brother” can certainly be seen as distant relatives. Old fart web geeks will no doubt namecheck JenniCam, which went from grainy webcam to streaming video to train wreck. (That said, I was a fan.) Then there’s Josh Harris’ short-lived “We Live in Public” experiment (similarly derailed).

Interestingly, as recently as November, New York VC Fred Wilson looked back on “We Live in Public” as prescient. “Technology allows us to broadcast our lives so easily,” he said.

And Justin is.

Justin Who?

Things move quickly in Internet Time. Justin Kan’s name may ring a bell as one of the guys behind Kiko, a sexy web calendar app that was all the rage last summer. His plans for the future in April? “Making the best calendar in the entire world available for everyone. We won’t rest until we’ve brought our vision to life.”

By August, Kiko made tech headlines again, when its assets were put up for sale on eBay. Not a triumphant moment, perhaps, but a quarter million dollars ain’t nothing to sneeze at.

Lots of folks posted post-mortems about what could be learned from Kiko’s rise and fall. And Justin posted his own analysis. He said, for one, to stay focused. “If you’re a creative person, it’s very easy to get side-tracked on side ideas when you really should be working on your main one,” Justin wrote. “This is bad. Bad, bad, bad.”

A day later, he put out a call for a co-founder of the next startup… someone who “loves tinkering with/building electronics stuff. Sees things in MAKE magazine and says ‘wow, I should make that!'”

Two weeks later, he announced “Open Blinds,” an activist organization built around “Total Transparency.” The manifesto begins:

The end of privacy is coming. With the free flow of information on the internet, personal information crosses the country and spreads at the speed of light. With the price and size of cameras and microphones in free fall, more and more of our lives are recorded and shared. With a cell phone in every pocket, we’re all tied into a global network 24 hours a day. None of these things are going away; privacy advocates are a voice drowned out in the clamor for more bandwith, more media, and more information. The windows in our lives are being opened.

A month later, he and his team moved to San Francisco.

And last week, Justin.TV went live.

What It’s Not Like

Despite the many comparisons, Justin.TV is something different.

For many, the technology is the most interesting piece. Justin has a lipstick camera mounted on his hat, and bundle of gadgetry in a backpack, although the details of how it all works are carefully protected. The fact that he and his team have been able to actually do what undoubtedly thousands of others have dreamed (or had nightmares) about is impressive in itself.

The fact that Justin is mobile is the primary differentiator between the webcams of old and Justin.TV. Spying on someone indoors is one thing. Sitting on his shoulder as he goes about his daily business in the real world (no pun intended) is another.

But context counts for a lot. Jim Carey’s “Truman Burbank” didn’t know he was being filmed. Matthew McConaughey’s “Ed” did, but still lived on camera as a pawn in someone else’s game. Reality television claims to give us a window into the lives of strangers, but is packaged and edited by outsiders for impact, not honesty.

At first glance, Justin.TV seems like the closest thing yet to the perfect, intimately public life. A “warts and all” approach that JenniCam and We Live In Public aspired to, but achieved and validated through the unflinching eye of an omnipresent video camera. No doubt it’s the best and latest example that will spawn doctoral theses on expression, exhibitionism, and online presence… and “big picture” consternation about surveilance and privacy.

But as interesting as Justin.TV is from the technological and socialogical perspective, what we see is still colored by the underlying purpose of the project. It’s an experiment, sure. But it’s an experiment to find a business model, not to find enlightenment about Who We Are™.

So Meta It Hurts

Yes, there’s something deeply compelling about watching “online life” and “real life” blend so thoroughly. Justin chats up a girl at the bar, and viewers on his website jeer as he strikes out. He ducks out to go to the bathroom, and people on the other side of the planet question whether he washed his hands or not.

People in San Francisco are starting to converge on the magic hat. The folks at Laughing Squid posted a brain-bending account of how they came to hang out with Justin a few days ago.

And it didn’t take internet pranksters long to rattle the Justin.TV fishbowl, sending cops into his apartment with guns drawn.

But Justin is not an everyman, or even a typical geek, trying to live a normal life on camera. Justin.TV is a “proof of concept,” the basis of a still-evolving business plan, a whiz-bang business card to draw sponsors today, and VC buy in tomorrow.

I think we want to suspend disbelief, but we can’t. Not with ads covering the walls of his apartment, or with the frequent conversations about what they’re really doing. Fortunately, Justin.TV works great as a window into the life of an Internet startup, too. It only falters when the shields go up, or when the deliberate is poorly disguised as the spontaneous.

Secret backpack contents notwithstanding, it would be hard for Justin.TV to be more transparent than it is.

No More Secrets

Take Monday night.

Twitter asks, “What are you doing?” Justin.TV partner Matthew Seibel answers, “Thinking about how I make this into a business.”

Justin himself was stoked about being interviewed on local TV.

It turns out, though, that Justin.TV was offline during the live sidewalk chat. They arrive back at their apartment musing about a possible Denial-of-Service attack. As the site comes back online (apparently with the help of Amazon), conversation turns to the week’s schedule. They need to build momentum. Shake things up. Do interesting things.

Someone takes a call from a reporter. Not surprisingly, the questions turn to metrics. How is Justin.TV doing? How many unique visitors is the site getting? Hearing the Justin.TV team try to talk about their numbers, knowing the reporter and the world could be listening, was immensely entertaining. “We’re doing better than these guys, but not as good as those guys.” More probing. “Somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000.” So goes the dance.

How, they muse, to keep Justin.TV in the public eye? There’s Digg, of course, and Reddit (which came from the same incubator that birthed Kiko). But TechCrunch seems to be the Holy Grail for Justin.TV. Would feeding TechCrunch regular scoops on their metrics guarantee daily mentions from Michael Arrington? Would sharing numbers help or hurt their chances with VCs?

Then, the last question of the night comes from Justin as he brushes his teeth in the bathroom: “I don’t like this shirt. You want it?”

More on Justin.TV

1 Response

  1. Cliff says:

    I’ve been one of the web 2.0 startup crowd that has heard a lot about Justin TV. Especially from my twitter friend named “hawaii.”

    The first two times I logged in to Justin TV, I got nothing. A dead screen with nothing streaming at all.

    My third login was where Justin was sitting in a dimly lit pub atmosphere where it was quite loud. So loud that you could not understand anything that was being said. That was until he got up to go to the Graffiti designed bathroom. (I’m just glad he looked straight ahead and not down.) Yes he did wash his hands. He then walked back into the room and I once again could not hear anything.

    So out of the three times I’ve tried to tune in, I’ve seen nothing impressive at all.

    I guess I’ll check it out another time… But I have to believe that the interesting part of any of this has to be a real hit or miss opportunity.

    I’m sure twitter will keep me posted if anything exciting is ever going on with Justin TV.

    Thanks Ryan!

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