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YouNow: Like A Digital “Gong Show”

A new social reality entertainment site puts performers up front and gives critics a chance to judge wisely.

Andrew Garner dances shirtless to “Friday” by Rebecca Black during his turn to broadcast live on YouNow.com.

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Anyone who’s ever wanted to throw rotten fruit at a performer: Your moment has arrived.

It’s the first New York Tech Meetup of 2012, and YouNow.com founder Adi Sideman is stepping on stage in front of 800 enthusiasts to show off “a new social television platform” that could, for many performers, eliminate the kind of stage Sideman’s standing on. As he speaks, a 50-foot screen shows a web browser flipping through various live “channels”: A boy plays guitar while invisible fans give him points; a teenage girl talks to the webcam while commenters type “get naked!”; an amateur rapper gets virtual tomatoes chucked at his face.

A four-time media entrepreneur, Sideman launched YouNow, a never-ending webcam game show, in September 2011, and grew it to 100,000 monthly viewers by December. “This is the world’s first live broadcast social game,” he announces. But it’s more than a social game. It’s another sign in an ongoing shift in the entertainment business–the other side to all of this original content coming to user-generated social media. And another reason more people might soon choose the web over traditional TV.

The rise of inexpensive broadcasting technology–laptops with built-in webcams, FaceTime, and Internet connections strong enough to support streaming video–means it’s now possible for the average consumer to do what only radio and TV stations could do before.

Sites like YouTube and Vimeo have supported streaming video downloads for the better part of a decade, but the ability to stream live video to the web while others watch and participate has been slow to catch up.

“Just like publishing was democratized,” Sideman explains in an interview, “live will also be democratized.” Live, one-way video platforms like Justin.tv and Livestream have grown in popularity over the last few years, but Sideman believes that new technology today enables “a unique new format.”

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Web medium aside, the feeling participants are left with is something akin to the feeling late-’70s TV viewers might have had watching Chuck Barris’s classic TV game, The Gong Show–where contestants showed off various talents to a panel of judges. It was irreverent and dominated by sketchy performers with hilariously bad acts (and, of course, tons of polyester and bell-bottoms). When judges decided enough was enough, one of them rang a giant gong and cut the performer off, mid-unicycle spin. Much of the show’s appeal was due to the mix of awe-inspiring talent and aesthetic atrocity that took the stage. “The Gong Show was corny but unpretentious and a lot of fun. Considering the bloated, overrated junk that passes itself off as talent competitions now, I wish I had taken it more seriously back in the day,” says renown critic Rex Reed. YouNow is like America’s Got Talent. The users can engage in the same sort of vitriol that makes Simon Cowell rants so hard to tear away from today.

On YouNow, would-be broadcasters log in via Facebook and queue up for 60-second shots at fame. As videos stream, viewers spend points–gained by broadcasting themselves–to vote whether to kill the feed and move on. If voting ends up neutral or positive, the current star gets another 60 seconds.

Sideman says, “People live a lifetime and don’t get to perform in front of a large audience, and with this system we provide the airtime and the eyeballs.”

And, again, like The Gong Show, the level of talent on YouNow is, um, diverse.

“My tongue has gone numb,” says an English girl named Laura during her broadcast, after a chat viewer talks her into licking wet nail polish. A quick visit to the “Hip Hop” channel reveals an attractive blonde, not hip-hopping, but talking about herself. Viewers vote her up for several minutes, nonetheless. The “Music+” channel shows an actual musician actually performing. He sings off-key while playing his guitar, but supportive viewers let him finish the song before voting him off.

Gong.

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The two “Talk” channels typically consist of teenage boys from the U.K. rambling about their lives. “I think this is because of the fact that young girls like the good-looking guys, so [they] will keep them on,” says Fiona MacLennan, a 16-year-old from Aberdeen, Scotland, in an email interview.

MacLennan started using YouNow after hearing that Reality TV star Sam Pepper from the U.K.’s Big Brother had joined. “YouNow has basically taken over my life,” she says.

Another channel shows a trio of teens flipping off the camera while chatters berate them. The vote plummets, but the stars get 45 more seconds of cursing in before the camera cuts.

Certain crowds, Sideman explains, have not necessarily adapted to the site. The way to get people to behave, he says, is engineering a social game where incentives like points, levels, and prizes like iPods entice users to keep order.

And despite a good amount of chaos, it’s hard to stop watching.

“YouNow is truly addicting,” says Joe “J RillA” Ryan III, an independent hip-hop producer from Flint, MI, who uses YouNow to work toward becoming a “worldwide Artist.”

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Another user, Tahj Trav, says in an email, “YouNow is nothing like other broadcasting sites, not even close … none of them puts you in the spotlight or on the front page. Instead you become buried in a list of broadcasts, and the chances of being found are pretty slim.”

YouNow raised just north of a million dollars from investors to grow its audience to a critical mass. They plan to monetize via virtual goods, and at scale, one can imagine opportunities for sponsored shows and contests, in addition to an ad-supported model.

YouNow’s breed of social reality will turn toward politics in 2012, Sideman says. “We’re planning a political channel to let pundits talk during election season.”

Imagine Barack Obama fans warring with Glenn Beck followers in a never-ending Gong Show debate. It might be enough to make voters feel like they actually have a voice.

Or perhaps make them feel like moving to Canada.

[Disclosure: One of YouNow’s minority investors, Founder Collective, is also an investor in a startup that Shane Snow cofounded (Contently.com).]

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[Image: Retrieved from YouNow.com on January 7, 2012]

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About the author

Shane Snow is co-founder of Contently and author of Dream Teams and other books. Get his biweekly Snow Report on science, humanity, and business here. In addition to Fast Company, Shane has written for The New Yorker, Wired, and The Washington Post

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