The live-streaming app where amateurs get paid to chat, eat, and sleep on camera

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Tayser Abuhamdeh doesn’t have what most people would call an exciting job. He works behind the counter at a deli in Brooklyn, a small shop that does a brisk business in snacks, coffee, and cigarettes. In June of last year, on a whim and mostly out of boredom, Abuhamdeh mounted his phone next to the register and began to broadcast his day on YouNow, a live streaming service. His handle was Mr. Cashier.

“I was talking to myself at first,” he says. “No one was there. But I was nervous, I felt like there were people watching. I was quiet. It was weird.” After a few weeks of broadcasting he began to find his rhythm. “Eventually I started opening up, saying random things, telling jokes and laughing at my own jokes. I started to act like people were there watching, and that’s when they showed up.”

Abuhamdeh’s routine was subtle. People would walk up and pay, he would ring them up, and then as they left, nail them with a zinger spoken to the camera. If a customer was in on the joke, Abuhamdeh would banter with them a bit. He shared stories from his home life, and slowly began to invite fans into it, broadcasting from his apartment, from a cousin’s wedding, while driving in his car or getting a haircut.

His broadcasting schedule swelled from one or two hours a day to appearing live in four two-hour sessions. His fanbase grew, but so did his phone bill. “I was using up around 70GB of data each month, and I’m with Verizon so you know that’s not cheap.” He was addicted to the interaction with the audience, but couldn’t afford to keep up with his costs. So he sent a letter to YouNow, which put him on its partner program, allowing him to earn money when his fans left digital tips and gifts.

These days a typical Mr. Cashier broadcast has several hundred people following live at any time. “At first, it got to be enough so I could cover my phone bill. Now I make more every month on YouNow than I do from my work at the store,” Abuhamdeh tells me. Along with broadcasting, Abuhamdeh texts and talks on the phone with his followers. “I get close to my supporters. I FaceTime with them. We become friends.” A couple of times he’s broadcast from his bedroom while sleeping. “Just cause they asked for that. They want to see everything that you do.”

younow sleeping

YouNow launched back in September of 2012, but for its first year and a half struggled to find traction. Then in May of last year it suddenly clicked, exploding from less than 10 million monthly visitors to more than 100 million in the span of just four months. More than 35,000 hours of live video are now streamed on the service each day, and more than a million dollars in tips flow through its platform each month.

This growth is part of a broader boom in live streaming services. Meerkat emerged as a media and tech darling, easily winning the war for attention at this year’s SXSW. It initially piggybacked off of Twitter, but was quickly cut off, likely because Twitter has its own plans for a live streaming service built around a company it just acquired, Periscope. We’ve finally hit a tipping point where live streaming makes sense, both as a killer feature on a platform like Twitter, but also as a standalone business like YouNow. So why now?

"The reason is the rise of iOS and Android," says Emmett Shear, the CEO of Twitch. He tried and failed to launch a general purpose live streaming service with Justin.TV. Eventually he pivoted into gaming, a niche where being tied to a desktop computer made sense. But now the mobile market is mature enough for a sea change.  "Smartphones provide all the critical pieces for these new services. They take care of distribution through the app store, monetization through in-app purchases, incredible video quality through cameras and microphones, and connectivity everywhere with LTE internet." The growth and ubiquity of social networks is also "creating an amplifier effect for good consumer products."

YouNow is run by founder and CEO Adi Sideman, who knows very well the long history of failed experiments with live streaming. "It is a dream that a lot of people have been thinking about for a long time," Sideman told me, relaxing at a conference table in his midtown New York office. "It is a holy grail."

In the 1990s Sideman studied art and technology in New York. He was part of a group that believed everyone would soon be the star of their own reality television series, all broadcast on the web. That included the infamous Josh Harris, a dot-com millionaire who imploded for his live audience, chronicled in the documentary We Live in Public. "I was running a media technology agency for a while and trying to shove this down the throat of every client, but nobody wanted it," Sideman says.

Watching a YouNow stream can be an overwhelming experience. The comments on popular videos fly by far too quickly for the broadcaster to follow. Often you see streamers squinting to make out a username, trying to reply in real time to the flood of compliments and questions. "It’s all about the addiction to real time feedback and the nodes in the brain that it triggers," Sideman tells me.

Users can give digital gifts, essentially sticks, like hearts, fistbumps, or beers. These cost coins, which you earn from spending time interacting on YouNow. Users can also give premium goods, which cost money to acquire. A 99 cent tip sometimes gets a broadcaster to smile, while more expensive offerings elicit a personal shoutout, or more intimate reaction. The company won’t share what the revenue split is between streamers and YouNow, saying only that broadcasters in the partner program get "the lion’s share" of their tips. Of course, anyone getting premium goods outside the partner program gets no cut.

Sideman decides to give me a live demo. He tunes in to the channel of a user named FlippinGinja, a red-headed teen and amateur gymnast who is lounging on his porch swing. "Guys, I’ve been drinking too much water," he tells his smartphone camera. With the press of a few buttons Sideman tips Ginja the equivalent of $5, along with a message asking him to flip for Ben.

"Everybody comment in the chat. Ben this flip is dedicated to you, for being so awesome. Everybody say, 'We love Ben' in the chat." While the chat lights up with people chanting my name, Ginja dashes down his steps onto his front lawn, does an amazing corkscrew backflip, does it again for good measure, and then heads back to the porch, where he continues bantering a mile a minute, skimming the comments like a pro, dispensing jokes, attention, and affection in just the right doses.

Despite myself, I feel a rush of excitement, the thrill of having another human perform just for me. "The broadcaster is not the only content creator in the room," says Sideman. "It’s really a one to many experience that feels like one to one. That is the heart, the secret. Even payment, there is feedback on the screen, feedback from the broadcaster, feedback from the audience, it’s part of the show."

jimmy fallon meerkat tweet

One of the interesting aspects of Meerkat’s success is how top down it has been. Before it had a sizable user base it blew up on Product Hunt, becoming an overnight darling of influencers in tech and media. Last week Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Al Roker, and Jimmy Fallon all took the service for a spin. Before it had even cracked into the top 1,000 apps in the iOS store, Meerkat was the subject of countless articles and had become one more arrow in the quiver for celebrities with well established personal brands. Instead of a photo or video of someone famous doing something fabulous, you get a livestream instead. But so far it doesn’t have its own community, or any everyman stars.

YouNow is the complete opposite. It’s one of the top grossing social apps on iOS, but its most popular users are largely unknown teenagers. They aren’t broadcasting from exciting places or doing interesting things. A lot of what happens on YouNow feels like the PG-13 version of Cam Girls, part confessional conversation, part vaudeville performance.

YouNow carefully polices and blocks nudity or sexual content. But the teens and tweens that top its charts are fully aware of their own sex appeal. A pair of young brothers joke about turning viewers on before engaging in a fully clothed wrestling match that quickly turns shirtless. A girl lies in bed and slowly applies her makeup while a stream of commenters, their heavy breathing palpable, repeatedly ask her age.

That’s not to say everything on YouNow is softcore teen solipsism. There are plenty of striving rappers, guitar players, and dancers. FlippinGinja’s father, after seeing how much his son was earning, emailed asking if he too could become a paid content partner. Dad broadcasts extended rants, often while driving, on the state of pop music, politics, his hyperactive son. FlippinDad now regularly pulls in a hundred or more viewer during broadcasts. "So now there is a second camera in this reality show!" Sideman says with excitement.

There is talent on YouNow, but an equal amount of banality.

There is talent on YouNow, but an equal amount of banality. The fascination of the audience seems less tethered to what the person is doing on screen, and more to the amount of time they are willing to spend in front of the camera, the level of intimacy they are comfortable cultivating. I spoke on the phone with Rudan, a 20-something Texan who dropped out of college, leaving behind a degree in computer science for full time broadcasting.

rudan younow

"The people who support us will watch us do anything. There are times when I fall asleep on broadcast, and wake up, the stream has been going for 10 or 12 hours and people are still watching, still commenting, still giving tips," says Rudan. The chat on his live streams is too busy for a real conversation, but fans engage fans in deeper conversation on Snapchat, and through text messages and phone calls. "They follow you wherever you go, they text you, they start telling you their story. You become a role model, an inspiration."

While his live stream is typically an upbeat affair, full of jokes, horseplay and goofy voices, Rudan says the relationships with fans are often quite serious. "People don’t seem to understand, broadcasting is very stressful. The main audience is young teenage girls. The biggest topic of discussion is suicide and cutting. It gets pretty deep. When I first started I got depressed." He sees himself as someone they can turn to for comfort and entertainment. "I don’t like to call it counselor, or therapist, but usually that’s what you do when you broadcast. You help people smile, keep them happy.

"What is talent?"

We’re all hungry for what we feel is a meaningful connection with our fellow humans. Modern technology is allowing that deep desire to play out in some very strange ways. I ask Sideman, YouNow’s CEO, what he makes of the content on the site he created. "It’s raw. If you look at our homepage, it’s very raw. There is nothing packaged about it. Eventually there will be. But it’s in that exciting stage. It reminds me of the early days of the internet," he says. It remains to be seen if live streaming will have more staying power in the mobile era than it did in the dot-com days.

As we talk Sideman tunes into the channel for Rudan. We catch him shirtless, cooking a meal, singing to himself, and working the chat room. "It’s nice to see people with real talent," he says, "And ‘What is talent?’ is also a great subjective question."

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