The first time I learned about live streaming was also the first time I realized you could play shuffleboard in Brooklyn, at the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club.
As my friends and I learned the rules, my teammate, Kevin Porter, started talking to his iPhone. He’d just downloaded Yevvo, he explained. The premise was simple—everything his phone could see and hear, his followers could also see and hear. His girlfriend had stayed home that night, but she was (hypothetically) watching his every move, thanks to this app. He had become the star of his own reality television show, albeit with a very small audience, and we were all his cast mates.
It seems like just about everything you say and do might wind up on the Internet someday. But this was something different: with Yevvo, everything we said and did was on the Internet, right then and there. And after a few minutes, my shuffleboard teammate had a new follower. And then another. And then another.
Yevvo, which relaunched last year with new features and a new name—Air—isn’t the only app to allow people to broadcast their lives live. With the spread of high-quality smartphone cameras, not to mention camera-equipped wearable devices, the use of such apps is sure to become more common. And such personal broadcasting could start to change the social media landscape.
Back at the shuffleboard club, we weren’t really considering any of this. Air’s users notify contacts when they begin a broadcast, and then anyone following that feed can push-notify their followers to check it out too. Nothing is saved or stored for later. If you missed it in real time, you missed it. Our fans—my friend’s girlfriend, at least—rooted for us, via comments on the stream. We had a blast.
Air is not just about catering to attention-starved 30-somethings, one of the company’s Israeli co-founders, Ben Rubin, told me in an interview a while later. Rubin and two others founded Yevvo after trying to figure out which parties to go to at a tech conference in Austin, Texas. They decided it would be nice to be able to actually show each other what a given scene was like.
Since launching as Yevvo in August 2013, Air has raised more than $4 million. Rubin wouldn’t disclose how many people have downloaded Yevvo or its new incarnation, but it clearly isn’t threatening Instagram yet. The highest Yevvo was ranked in Apple App store, back in December 2013, was 223rd.
Still, there’s good reason to think live-streaming video could thrive. A service like Vine, which makes it easy to post short videos on Facebook and Twitter, is appealing because it reduces the amount of time between when something happens and when other people get to see it. Meanwhile Snapchat’s ephemeral promise makes it a medium for sharing even the most impulsive and unguarded moments, delivered to recipients instantly rather than crowded into a feed. Live-streaming apps offer a similar, even more colorful method for unfettered and unfiltered communication.
Josh Elman, a partner at the Silicon Valley investment firm Greylock, told me he’s considering getting involved with Rubin’s company because it is positioned at television media’s latest shift, from “being curated, and heavily produced, to tuning into who you want, based on who you know.”
This novel participatory medium also raises questions, though—about privacy, intimacy, and appropriate behavior on social media. Porter, the guy who first showed me Yevvo, told me several months later that he eventually deleted the app from his phone. As he continued to explore the service, he said, he increasingly found the whole concept gross.
“You can only imagine how many ‘take off your shirt’ requests an aspiring model received while streaming her photo shoot to a bunch of lonely teens,” he told me.
What ultimately convinced him to walk away was seeing older men following underage girls, something that basically creeped him out. “If only these poor parents knew that their child was upstairs being watched by (and responding to) creepy old dudes,” he wrote.
Ryan Cooley, the company’s community manager, acknowledges the “perv factor,” but he points out that Air has made many changes designed to reduce it substantially. Now you can only invite people to follow you via SMS; the app doesn’t promote particular users (and thus expose them to strangers); users have the option to approve everyone that follows them. “We won’t recommend anybody for you to follow unless we are confident you know them from the physical world,” Cooley says. “I don’t think the dirtbags are going to go away, but you’re going to see a lot more transparency.”
Despite these misgivings, I found live streaming a fascinating thing to try. It’s fair to imagine that live-streaming services could become compelling new forms of social connection. If that happens, I can’t promise I won’t ham it up on screen after a few cocktails, but at least my viewers might find it entertaining.