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Stickam: A window into anyone's world
TALK about an eavesdropper's paradise: Unless you work for the government, you will likely never have enjoyed such a powerful ability to monitor any of thousands of conversations as you do at Stickam.com, a new social networking site that's trying to leapfrog MySpace by enabling users to participate in live, multiway videoconferencing. Most rooms are public, and when you visit the site there is no requirement to broadcast either your image or voice or give your real name.
The idea for Stickam (pronounced Stick-cam) is simple: Without having to pay a dime or install any sketchy software, you can fire it up and start a face-to-face-to-face chat. All you need is a decent broadband connection and, of course, a webcam. (If you don't have one built in, you can order one online for about $30.) More audacious souls "go live" — Stickam lingo for enabling your webcam. A small window will appear in your browser with a video of you — What else? — staring at a video of you in your browser.
At this point, an important distinction should be made. When you stream live video, you are not broadcasting yourself to the whole world or even anyone with a computer. Your audience is limited to the people who have entered your chat room. But before you and a friend reenact that scene from "Borat," keep one thing in mind: With the right software, anyone can record video from Stickam at any time — and people do.
Intriguing as it is at first, the novelty of access to a mother lode of video chats does begin to wear off fairly quickly, especially if you don't feel like listening to bored teenagers — "I'm bored," being an oft-heard Stickam complaint — speculating about such things as why "they're taking the word 'the' out of superhero movie names" — "Hulk," "Fantastic Four," "X-Men."
Luckily, Stickam offers more than just chat. A number of entertainers have established outposts here, including a growing group of radio DJs seeking new exposure. "The video element lets listeners feel like they're a part of the whole process," said Hawaii reggae DJ Shaggy Jenkins, answering a question via Stickam in midshow. "It kind of breaks the mystique behind DJs and their real appearances." Shaggy is the proof of concept here — on Stickam you can see he's not the dreadlocked island Rasta listeners might picture but a ball-capped white dude from North Carolina.
Stickam has also attracted a number of YouTube and MySpace personalities, many of whom say the ability to interact with fans is the real draw. "I just get on [Stickam] and do whatever crazy stuff the fans want," said Colt Whitmore, 17, whose YouTube videos have scored several hundred thousand views. Whitmore believes Stickam is going to be "extremely huge" and that MySpace (where he has amassed nearly 42,000 "friends") "isn't going to be as big as it was. There are too many fake profiles up there. Everyone just uses it as a big billboard now."
One music group is trying to take video chat to yet another level. Story Told, a ragtag crew of twentysomething indie rockers who also produce a reality series for YouTube — has installed a 24-hour webcam in its Sunnyvale, Calif., living room, allowing for a constant conversation between band members and fans. Their camera and computers were part of a sponsorship deal with Stickam, one of several the company has pursued with various young artists and musicians. Lead singer Loren Groves makes no apology. "It's all product awareness," he said by cellphone, stepping away from his day job at a Silicon Valley dotcom. "It has nothing to do with that song you wrote last Tuesday. You have to market yourself, period."
Groves claims that thanks to his band's online presence, their album has been downloaded more than 10,000 times. Their next effort, he said, will arrive on a CD packed with Stickam promotional material and software. He also expects Story Told to install more cameras in their house, sacrificing even more of their privacy to marketing gods.
Watching the group on Stickam is a mostly boring but occasionally amusing experience. On a recent night, band members and friends appeared on camera in various states of intoxication, wrestled, listened to loud rap music and joked with the half-dozen fans who were online. "I was born to live in front of the camera!" declared keyboardist Jason "Jallah" Swenson (who, perhaps not coincidentally, will soon be asked to leave the band, according to Groves). Another young man, looking at a Stickam viewing statistic, gloated, "Dude, we're getting hella traffic," then went on to note that the next morning he would "show up wasted to traffic school."
Among the group's live fans are a coterie of young women — video groupies, basically — who beam themselves into the band's virtual room for hours on end, often dressed in suggestive outfits, to relentlessly flirt with Story Told's members. Several cited concrete plans to visit the band, including a college student from New Jersey who had even arranged which bed she'd be sleeping in (the bass player's).
Though interactive, round-the-clock webcam is certainly no "Sopranos," the medium is too young to be written off. What if the Shins had a 24/7 webcam? Or G-Unit? Old-school, edited reality TV may have to consider that this real-time, uncut, unfiltered programming has an inherent advantage with reality.
There are potential problems, however. Stickam hits a trifecta that has made some parents nervous: It's new, it's free and it allows users to remain anonymous. So there has been some worrying in the press about whether the site is "a magnet for sexual predators." Some Web experts say there's a danger. Others say the kids are all right.
Indeed, worry about sex offenders may be causing people to overlook a more pernicious threat to users: themselves. Contacted by e-mail, a woman whose profile was No. 2 on Stickam's most-viewed list and whose image the site had used for a month on a homepage promo ad, said she had to stop using Stickam after she became "obsessed" with the attention she was receiving.
"I forgot about everything in my life," she said, identifying herself only as Laura. "My family, school, work. I wouldn't go to sleep, I'd be up at the [crack] of dawn just to be on Stickam."
In a video recorded by one Stickam user and posted elsewhere, Laura is seen undressing at fans' urging, while a toddler ambles about in the background — a disturbing reminder that a major part of webcasting is, after all, staring at your own reflection and perhaps even becoming mesmerized by it. "After a while," Laura said, "you don't even notice the people in the room talking to you."