Who needs privacy? Apparently not the iPod generation who have grown used to airing their entire lives online and would feel unplugged and out of touch if internet eyes weren't watching them. Case in point -- Justin.tv. Both the San Francisco Chronicle and The Age, in Australia, feature articles today about Justin Kan, a guy who walks around San Francisco all day with a camera strapped to his head broadcasting his life to a growing fanbase who try to influence what he does. (As I write this, at 10:20 on Friday morning, I'm watching Justin and his roommate discussing a blind date the previous night -- when the audio frustratingly cuts out.) It's the Truman Show, replete with product placement and sponsorships, but with full cooperation from the show's star. From the Chronicle piece:
Viewers seem to delight in playing along with their new online idol, cramming chat rooms and pulling pranks on him, first calling 911 to report a stabbing in the group's apartment (prompting some friends to give Kan a bullet-proof vest for the next time officers burst in, guns drawn), then reporting a fire there. San Francisco emergency dispatchers, leery of any more false alarms, now call to confirm there's an actual emergency before responding. So fans moved on to different sorts of pranks, such as ordering $63 worth of pizza to be delivered to Justin.tv's door.
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To get an idea of what Justin.tv is all about right now, picture four guys gone wild in a two-bedroom apartment littered with disheveled furniture, empty beer cans, remnants of pizza crust and randomly strewn socks and shoes. On a giant white board is the show's apparent goal: Jay Leno, 30 days or less. . . .
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When some of Vogt's friends from MIT show up, they can't believe the show is for real. So Kan tells viewers that if they send 100 e-mails in 20 minutes, the entire gang will dive into the swimming pool completely clothed. Kan clocks 300 messages.
With that kind of response, Kan says he has no intention of turning off the camera anytime soon. "We will keep going as long as it's fun and as long as it's relevant," he said. "I figure that will be for a long time to come. ..."
Justin.tv isn't a novel idea, of course. But, unlike the early internet age of the Jennicam when the idea of watching a woman in her room still felt like seedy voyeurism, YouTube and widespread broadband connectivity have made it seem prudish for people not to broadcast their life to strangers and for the rest of us not to watch when they do.
Andrew Keen, author of the upcoming book The Cult of the Amateur thinks this kind of digital narcissism offers a media fix to people who are bored with their lives and have come to count on the internet to entertain them 24 hours a day. The slogan of Justin.tv is "waste your life watching other people waste theirs."
Keen thinks the sorry fad won't last and that people will move on quickly once the net becomes saturated with Justin Kans and internet users go in search of their next media fix.
"This is the last gasp of the Web 2.0 boom," Keen told the Chronicle. "People are going to look back at this and say, 'This makes Second Life look like the BBC.' I think even Justin will look back on it and be embarrassed."
But Emily Nussbaum of New York magazine would probably say that Keen has stumbled into the generation gap and can't see that the future belongs to the uninhibited. In her great article about the unprivacy generation, she quotes Clay Shirky of New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program.
"Whenever young people are allowed to indulge in something old people are not allowed to, it makes us bitter. What did we have? The mall and the parking lot of the 7-Eleven? It sucked to grow up when we did! And we're mad about it now." People are always eager to believe that their behavior is a matter of morality, not chronology, Shirky argues. "You didn't behave like that because nobody gave you the option."
None of this is to suggest that older people aren't online, of course; they are, in huge numbers. It's just that it doesn't come naturally to them. "It is a constant surprise to those of us over a certain age, let's say 30, that large parts of our life can end up online," says Shirky. "But that's not a behavior anyone under 30 has had to unlearn." Despite his expertise, Shirky himself can feel the gulf growing between himself and his students, even in the past five years. "It used to be that we were all in this together. But now my job is not to demystify, but to get the students to see that it's strange or unusual at all. Because they're soaking in it."