I am sitting here watching a bored girl smoke a cigarette. I click, and a 15-year-old is eating ravioli from a bowl while complaining about her hair. Another click, and I’m staring at the inside of someone’s closet. Click-click-click: A Justin Bieber wannabe is playing the piano and singing, three girls are dancing to “Airplanes,” and a muscular young man is getting his arm tattooed.
It sounds like a public-access cable television station from hell. But it’s actually YouNow, a “live-casting” personal broadcasting service that threatens to displace Snapchat as the app most likely to keep parents awake at night.
If you haven’t heard of YouNow, you’re probably old. Each month, some 4 million members create and watch more than 100 million webcasts, as other YouNow fans communicate with them via live chat. But more than a third are between the ages of 13 and 18, and another 40 percent are in their early 20s. Much of this activity happens late at night, on phones or laptops, under the noses of their oblivious parents.
There’s even an entire genre of YouNow streams devoted to watching people sleep. Yes, really.
So, to recap: Teenagers in their bedrooms, on camera, in their skivvies, chatting with a bunch of anonymous strangers on the Internet. What could possibly go wrong?
Everybody is a star
Technologically, YouNow’s closest kin are the gazillion webcam girl sites on the Net, a fact that is unlikely to assuage any parental worries.
You sign up by connecting your Facebook, Twitter, or Google Plus Account to YouNow. The site immediately starts streaming a channel picked at random. You can pick a different channel by clicking one of the thumbnails below the video window or the list of hashtags to the left.
To be on camera yourself, click “Go Live,” allow the site to access your camera and microphone, select a hashtag (like #dance or #bored or #lgbt) to choose the channel for your show, and click “Go Live” again.
Voilà, you’re now a broadcaster with a potential audience of millions.
As viewers find your live-cast, they can weigh in via a chat window, ask questions, make requests, and offer emoji-style gifts (some of which cost money — more on that later). If they click the Fan+ button, they can get notified when your next show will start.
Aside from the requirement for a social media account, YouNow does no age or identity verification. You could be, or pretend to be, anyone. The potential for abuse is obvious — and if nothing else, the popular #truthordare stream is sure to get your attention.
Every day, YouNow bans a surprisingly large number of users for violating their terms of service, most of them for making inappropriate requests of the webcam stars, says Sideman. Once they’re banned, YouNow has ways of ensuring they can’t just spin up a new identity and log back on.
(Sideman asked me to not reveal too much about YouNow’s security measures, lest someone use that information to defeat them.)
In numerous random visits over the course of a week, I didn’t see anything objectionable, save for the occasional F-bomb. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen — I’m certain it does — but it’s not nearly as widespread as you might expect.
Darrell Tousley is one of the few YouNow members I found who appears old enough to vote, a 45-year-old professor of art with a goofy personality. He launched his channel four months ago after watching his now 16-year-old son Jared increase his viewing audience to 150,000 fans in a little more than a year.
“I have 22,000 fans on YouNow, and they all call me dad,” Tousley says. “A lot of them don’t have dads of their own, so we adopted them into our Flippin Family.”
Where many look at YouNow and see stranger danger, Tousley sees the positive things it can bring. When his 14-year-old daughter was suffering from self-esteem issues, for example, he brought her onto Jared’s show and invited Flippin Family fans to tell her how beautiful she was.
Tousley says YouNow has also benefited him personally.
“I’m autistic,” he says. “Most people are surprised to learn that about me. When I stopped teaching last semester, I began to turn inward and stop talking to people. YouNow loosened me up again, helped me become more outgoing.”
Aside from personal growth, YouNow also brings the Flippin Family money. The mobile app sells “gold bars” that users can trade for premium gifts, then splits the revenues with its most popular live-casters. Sideman says an emerging star like Jared can pull in a four-figure income every month, while more established live-casters can make five figures.
Everybody wants to shine
YouNow is weird and banal, irritating and fascinating, and deeply disturbing on a cultural level. It’s The Truman Show where everyone is Truman. But is it dangerous for kids?
That all depends on how and when they’re using it, says Christine Elgersma, senior editor of apps and digital learning for Common Sense Media.
“You want to ask your kids if they or their friends have ever used it,” she says. “And then you need to have a frank discussion about the risks. But knowing whether they’re using it is half the battle.”
Tousley says parents need to make sure kids don’t use YouNow behind closed doors, and to keep an eye on how long they’re online. In other words, policing YouNow is not that much different from monitoring how long kids play video games or surf the Web.
If the discovery that your kids are YouNow stars terrifies you, you can contact YouNow’s support desk and ask them to de-activate their account, says Sideman. (But don’t be surprised if they relaunch it under a different name — only accounts that have been removed for violating the site’s terms are banned for life.)
Aside from the people I interviewed for this column, no adult I know has ever heard of YouNow. But my 16-year-old daughter has. She even recommended a channel for me to watch and had me dial it up on the spot: DanIsNotOnFire, an adorable British teen who does silly things on camera and also has a massive following.
I asked her if she ever did a livecast on YouNow. She was horrified.
“No,” she said, looking as if I had just offered to escort her to the prom. “What if one of my friends saw me?”
That’s my girl. Now if I could just get her to stop using Snapchat, we’d be great.
Share your favorite YouNow channels with Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.