I first met Justin Kan in May 2007 at Los Angeles' landmark Roosevelt hotel on Hollywood Boulevard. Back then, Kam had his own internet show: an always-on video streaming act in theme of Peter Weir's 1998 movie The Truman Show, which involved Kan wearing a webcam and broadcasting himself, 24-hours a day, on the internet.
Kan and I were appearing at the Always-On conference, an event put on by Tony Perkins, the noted Silicon Valley impresario. As we sat in the lobby, once the haunt of old media icons such as Gable, Lombard and Monroe and which was now packed with brash new media stars such as Kan, the 24-year-old Yale graduate told me that he planned to transform www.justin.tv from a site where he just broadcast himself into a Web 2.0 style portal that enabled everyone to stream themselves on the internet. A portal, I thought to myself – how quaint, how antiquated, how 1998.
How wrong I was. Kan's Justin.tv, financed by Paul Graham's Y Combinator early stage venture fund, has proved to be one of the most viral hits of today's internet. According to the authoritative TechCrunch news service, in the first year of Justin.tv's existence, the social-network portal has created 650,000 new broadcasters on 90,000 channels who have collectively produced a mindboggling 119 years worth of video material.
But now Justin.tv, which continues to experience meteoric growth in broadcasters and viewers, is in the news for two quite different reasons: one inspiring, the other tragic. The tragedy involved a 19-year-old community college student from Florida called Abraham Biggs who broadcast himself on Justin.tv under the screen name of CandyJunkie. On 20 November, Biggs, who had a long history of mental illness, committed suicide live on Justin.tv after taking an overdose of antidepressants. What is particularly sad is that some members of the 185 person audience who watched the live suicide on Justin.tv not only failed for hours to alert the authorities but actually egged on Biggs to kill himself, and others callously accused the dying young man of performing a stunt to gain attention.
While Biggs's suicide is not a first on the internet, it does reveal the anomie, cruelty and narcissism that characterises much of the web. With or without the internet, Biggs was clearly a troubled young man fixated with taking his own life. But the existence of Kan's always-on platform provided an ideally soulless environment for him to publicly act out his final moments. That Justin.tv viewers proved to be so heartless about such an awful tragedy speaks, I think, to the emptiness of the much vaunted conversation, community and collaboration on the "social" web.
Fortunately, the news about Justin.tv is not only tragic. One of the more inspiring consequences of Kan's broadcasting portal is its attempt, implicit or otherwise, to democratise that most archaic of old media businesses – English Premier League football. Justin.tv members are watching live televised games where they are broadcast around the world, filming them with their webcams and streaming the action directly over the portal, where they can of course be watched by fans in Britain. While the Premier League clubs – who pay their overpriced stars with the revenue from their international television deals – have yet to formally sue Justin.tv, their lawyers have claimed these broadcasts are illegal and that the Silicon Valley company should desist from allowing its members to post this supposedly pirated content.
Justin.tv's CEO, Michael Siebel, has fallen back on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to claim that the site is not knowingly allowing the reproduction of copyrighted materials. But I think he should respond more aggressively to the bullying, greedy executives intent on maintaining an unnatural broadcasting monopoly on their product. The truth is that streaming the games live on amateurish, grainy videos is no threat to high-priced live ticket sales or to glossy mainstream broadcasts. Justin.tv is actually democratising the "people's game" by giving internet users an intimate taste of English football. In fact, as a former Spurs season ticket holder exiled to the wasteland of Silicon Valley, Justin.tv's live feeds from White Hart Lane appear to me to be almost as much of a godsend as Harry Redknapp.
Andrew Keen is author of 'The Cult of The Amateur'