As Meerkat and now Periscope are being touted as a possible future of news, YouNow is the livestreaming video app where teens are flocking. If Meerkat and Periscope are competing for the eyeballs of news junkie adults on Twitter, YouNow has already won with the hordes of young people who just want to hang out with each other.
Lately, I've been enjoying a deeply creepy yet technically totally innocent new activity: lying in bed at night and watching random teens sleep. I've been doing it on YouNow, a mobile app and web live-streaming app that's a hit with teens. On its popular #sleepingsquad hashtag, I can see about 20 sleeping teens at any given time. (It usually seems around 50-plus people are broadcasting in the hashtag, but a lot of them are in complete darkness, so you can't actually see anything. Because, you know, they're sleeping.)
Some teens sleep with light music on. Some are completely silent. And some, eerily, have the distinctive soft breathing sounds of sleep.
I don't know exactly why a teen would broadcast themselves sleeping. I can't ask them.
Because they're asleep.
I have asked other teens (or younger — I talked with kids as young as 10) why they use YouNow, a real-time video broadcasting app. The problem with asking a 13-year-old why they do anything is that it's quite difficult to get anything past "I dunno/I'm bored." But that's also the wrong question to ask. Why climb Mount Everest? Why tweet? Do adults really ever have a better answer than "I was bored" for anything we do? The aching desire to cut through the tedium of daily life with human interaction is the driving force of everything on the internet. In fact, boredom is such an integral raison d'être of teen life that #bored is one of the top channels on YouNow.
I chatted the the other people watching in the #sleepingsquad: Why? One girl watching a sleeping teen boy with me gave a reasonable response: "He's my boyfriend." Others had elliptical reasoning: "I think it's more that the people doing it want to get likes and fans."
Adi Sideman, the founder of YouNow, told me his theory on #sleepingsquad: "It's the addiction to the internet, it's the addiction to social media, it's not wanting to leave it behind even when you're sleeping." Andy Weissman of Union Square Ventures, who is invested in the app, described it as "an online slumber party" in an email to BuzzFeed News. "I also think part of the human condition is to look for connection with others. And this is probably more acute with younger people."
The app is sort of like Vine meets Chat Roulette meets The Gong Show. You can watch people live-streaming in different channels like "Musicians," "Dancing," or "Girls" and chat feedback or questions to them. If you really like them, you can tip them with points purchased with real money through the app, and the performer gets real money as a tip. YouNow's revenue model is based completely around the tipping system; they take a cut of the in-app purchases when fans buy points to tip the performers.
It's basically like an open-mic night where the hat is passed around: Some people will watch for free, some will toss a dollar in, and the house takes a cut at the end of the night. Currently, there are no plans to introduce ads. "We're happy with our current revenue model," said Sideman.
Fandom doesn't have a price on other platforms, like Vine or YouTube, where teen stars are made — ad-supported videos eliminate the need for financial transactions between the watchers and the watched. I asked Sideman why these mostly young users (70% are under 24, according to Sideman) would actually pony up cash to enjoy someone playing an Ed Sheeran cover instead of just enjoying an Ed Sheeran cover for free.
"Most of the fans just enjoy and chat and interact. Some of the fans want to stand out and want to participate more in, really, the content creation," said Sideman. "Because think about it — from a theoretical standpoint this thing is as much about the audience as it is about the broadcast. And that's really our focus — to let everybody participate and create content together. So if I tip or if I send a message and he incorporates it into what he's doing, we're collaborating."
During the day, the #sleepingsquad disappears. Musicians, performers, and cute charming teens dominate. I checked out the kids in the #truthordare channel. This where a distinct knot in my stomach kicked in. These were often young girls, seeming around ages 10–15, who are playing a sexually suggestive game with strangers. Coming up with harmless dares and G-rated truths is tough. So I did a few would-you-rathers instead:
Me: Let your mom pick all your clothes for a month or read all your texts for a week?
Teen girl: My mom actually has good style so I'd let her dress me.
Me: If you could have no homework for a year but you have to let your parent see all your texts for a month, would you do it?
Different teen girl: No, because I get some really weird texts from people on this thing.
For a dare, I dared the teen girls to lip-synch to a Taylor Swift song of their choosing (A+ dare, FYI. Feel free to use that one). One of them rolled her eyes and said she didn't like Taylor Swift — you could see the teen embarrassment of not wanting to like the thing that her peers liked — and offered to lip-synch instead to a parody of "Blank Space" by the YouTube star Shane Dawson.
Teens, let me give you a word of advice from a cool adult: Liking Shane Dawson is way more embarrassing than liking Taylor Swift.
After I had dared the third girl into singing a T. Swift song, I realized…this is really fun. It was a nostalgic rush to watch these girls lip-synch along to a pop star from inside their bedrooms — an activity that I have done not infrequently myself. It didn't feel creepy or wrong; it reminded me of a fun slumber party, exactly as the venture capitalist Andy Weissman described (though I maintain I am more qualified than him to judge similarities to a teen girl sleepover).
I am thinking very hard back to my teen self, and if this would have appealed to me. I was shy, and I think I wouldn't have liked the performative nature of it, but it's so hard to compare how normalized this technology is to kids now (for comparison, Myspace didn't exist until I was out of college). The kids on YouNow seems to represent the full social map of the lunchroom: theatre kids, hot popular girls, nerds, randos, short show-off-y boys in snapbacks. The difference is between YouNow and the real lunchroom is you can pay to sit at the popular kids' table if you want.
A girl in the "dance" category receives 50 "thumbs up" points from a fan, while a guy streams in the "guys" category.
Undoubtedly, there is something extremely worrisome about the vulnerability of children on the site. Sideman has his own knowledge of the dangers of adult predators. He produced a documentary Chicken Hawk about the notorious NAMBLA (North America Man-Boy Love Association) while in NYU film school in the mid-1990s. It was shown in the New York Underground Film Festival and a write-up in the Los Angeles Times called it "coldly objective" (the film is not at all supportive of NAMBLA). A 2001 article in New York magazine about the New York tech scene mentions him in not entirely flattering terms (the article is an amazing read as a time capsule of the tech bubble; I can't recommend it enough). The the author, Steve Fishman, chronicles his year of trying to get a karaoke website off the ground, and Sideman was involved as a business partner.
"I didn't speak to Steve, who is now a friend, for a few years after that. I was upset he wrote that my loft smelled like beer," he told me, chuckling. Adi, a former Israeli military paratrooper in his forties, wears a tight T-shirt over a henley and jeans and has funky glasses. He's likable and animated and offered me a cocktail at the office. He does not seem like someone whose loft would smell like beer.
Admittedly, as nervous for these kids' safety as I felt, I never saw anything weird or overtly sexual or harmful on YouNow. No one was exploiting the tipping system for stripping, and I didn't observe anyone acting untoward in the chat feature that runs along the side. YouNow employs a team of both in-house and outsourced content moderators.
"We have a large responsibility because it's live and because it's very popular with teens," said Sideman. "We invest a lot in our community management. We invest a lot in trust and safety in multiple languages to make sure that this is a safe place, and I'm very happy to say it is."
The broadcasters themselves didn't seem to worry either.
"Do you worry if there's creepy people on here?" I asked an 11-year-old girl.
"No, not really," she replied.
"Do your parents know you use this app?"
"Does that matter? No. It doesn't matter. They don't know."