Here's an irony of the 21st century, in case you needed any more. One of the joys of YouTube is making fun of clips of old cable-access television shows, the kind in which people who have no business being on television bungle through a swath of live airtime.
But the Internet, of course, has brought inept live broadcasting to new heights. As webcams proliferate on new computers, it's a growing field, and Canada's own Alliance Atlantis is trumpeting its own entrant, one BlogTV.ca -- and to hear it tell it, it's a homegrown YouTube killer. Indeed, I don't doubt that live video streaming hither and yon is the way of the future. It's just a pity that, for the time being, it's awful.
BlogTV is a site where people can broadcast live videos of themselves to the Internet. Viewers, meanwhile, can talk back through a live text chat room beneath the video image. Alliance Atlantis is pitching it as a platform for everybody to become their own live broadcaster. Its press releases boast of having signed up 50,000 users, at a rate of 1,000 a day, since going live in March. Users, we're told, broadcast more than 600 live shows each day.
What does this mean in practice? For one thing, those 600 live shows a day work out to about 12 going on at any given time, a number that will surely rise with time. But the term "show" is misleading.
After all, even the worst public-access show has a premise, and even the most bubble-headed YouTube video consists of more than footage of a kid staring into space. Yet that's exactly what the citizen broadcasters at BlogTV seem to spend their time doing. People just sign on and sit there like the big lumps of protein they are, waiting until viewers arrive in the chat room to provide stimulation.
I spend some time hunting around. In one live broadcast, a girl is sitting smoking a cigarette, saying nothing. Eventually, a guy logs in and types, "hey girl ... wassssupp?"
The show's "broadcaster" answers: "nun u" (that would be "nothing, you.")
There is a pause as she stares into the middle distance.
"Just think," types the guy, "that cigarette she smoking could be me."
People circulate from one video chat room to another, saying "wassup" and making other wassup-type utterances; the figures in the grainy little video boxes wassup back. Attractive girls get more viewers than anyone else, along with frequent, semi-literate requests to take their clothes off. A cute blond girl in her bedroom has drawn a crowd with the promise of "music and chillin." When I arrive, she is wiggling to the beat and talking about what she ordered for lunch. (Pizza Pizza, with bruschetta.) She asks what toppings people like on their pizzas.
Later, I tune into what BlogTV is touting as one of the service's better shows, something called "Ask a Fat Guy." There's a fat guy, alright, and he's screaming obscenities at the camera so loud that the sound crackles. Nobody's asking him much. Instead, people in the chat room are making bathroom-stall calibre innuendoes, and he's shouting back.
There's also the anything-goes "After Hours" section, in which you'll usually find at least one man who's pulled down his pants, pointed the camera at his crotch, and is proceeding to make a scene of himself. Say what you will, but at least this particular show has a narrative through-line.
I don't know how to say this any other way: At the moment, BlogTV.ca is terrible. It's not just boring and seedy - though it certainly is boring and seedy - it's the kind of website that leaves you with a headache. A lot of the Internet is silly and useless, but seldom have I seen anything so devoid of fun.
The question is, can we blame the content of BlogTV on the makers of BlogTV? After all, their only sin was to give people the tools with which to bore each other to death. It could be that the service is still too new to have attracted a contingent of camera-philic show-runners who know how to keep an open-line broadcast hopping.
To see what BlogTV could become, check out Stickam.com, its larger, better-developed American counterpart. Stickam provides much the same service, but has hundreds of young faces broadcasting themselves at any given moment. It's not promising: Though Stickam is better-designed and better-trafficked, its video chat rooms are still disconsolate places full of kids with nothing to say and nothing to do.
To a certain extent, I chalk it up to the medium. Live video-conferencing is still a profoundly alienating thing because there's no eye contact: Users stare at their monitors, not at the camera. Eyes may be windows onto the soul, but when people stare at computer screens, the soul gets up and slips out back for a smoke. If Alliance Atlantis wants to make a go of this, it needs to take a page from YouTube's book: Recruit and nurture volunteer talent who will make BlogTV live up to its premise as a forum for interactive programming, not half-witted banter. Foster the kind of community you would like to grow. Flog the good shows relentlessly and bury the boring ones. And get rid of the guys fiddling with themselves. Even the company that brought the Red Shoe Diaries to Canada has to draw the line somewhere.
For an example of live video that's more engaging - and more disconcerting - check out Justin.tv in which the eponymous Justin, a San Francisco online entrepreneur, has rigged a camera to his hat, and is broadcasting his life live to the Internet. (The camera connects to a battery of cellphones that upload the feed to the Web.) It might have been more of the usual Big Brother fare, but his life is actually interesting. Will he secure more venture capital? What's for lunch? Stay tuned.
An online comic that will warm the hearts of anyone who is immersed in online culture, and confuse most others. The strip's author - a programmer named Randall Munroe - recently made a splash by drawing the Web in geographic form, with various websites represented by continents sized according to their relative popularity. MySpace occupies a goodly part of the Northern Hemisphere, adjoining the Gulf of YouTube, above the Blogipelago, on whose rocky shores is marked the "shipwreck of the S.S. Howard Dean."