Alum stars in own ‘Truman Show’ online

Justin Kan ’05 has gone through four phone numbers in the last two weeks. Every time a new number leaks to the public, he said, his phone starts ringing nonstop with prank callers, well-wishers and “a lot of people being like, ‘Hey dude, I really like your site; this is awesome. Can you give a shout out to my girlfriend Ashley?’ ”

Kan’s reality TV-style Web site, justin.tv, broadcasts live video from a camera attached to his head 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The project has turned the recent graduate into a minor celebrity, both online and on the streets of San Francisco, where he lives with his roommates and business partners — Emmett Shear ’05, Michael Seibel ’05 and MIT student Kyle Vogt. The four entrepreneurs hope to turn justin.tv into a profitable business by selling ad space on the walls of their apartment and accepting corporate sponsorships. Kan said the site, launched 17 days ago, receives “tens of thousands” of unique hits a day, and while some critics and even friends have expressed skepticism that his popularity is more than a fad, Kan said he plans to continue filming “as long as we’re having fun and people are watching.”

Although the idea of a video weblog is nothing new, Kan said what makes justin.tv unique is that his camera never goes off. Eating, sleeping, answering fan e-mails and even going to the bathroom — the hundreds of viewers on the site at any given time see everything Justin sees and keep up a constant online conversation dissecting his movements in a chat room on the site. In between waves of spam featuring links to porn Web sites, a steady stream of viewer commentary ranges from the adulatory — “I think Justin is … sooo freaking hot!” a user by the name of Uluvroxy writes — to the simply curious, and includes some diehard fans who follow his every move.

For the most part, Kan said, fan enthusiasm is part of what keeps him going. He receives e-mails from viewers all over the world, and while he has not yet come up with a way to deal with the overwhelming volume of callers or with irritating 5 a.m. calls from Michigan, he said he hopes to eventually release a phone number he can keep for more than a few days, so he can talk to people in person.

Kan said people sometimes recognize him on the street, especially after the San Francisco Chronicle published a front-page feature about justin.tv last Friday. He has been asked on several blind dates since his Web site’s March 19 launch — although on Tuesday he was stood up twice.

The one problem Kan has faced, he said, is that “you put a target on yourself when you’re walking around with a camera.” He was particularly upset when a viewer prank-called the police claiming there had been a stabbing at the apartment he shares with Shear, Seibel and Vogt.

“They busted in at like 11 at night with their guns drawn, expecting to see some horrible crime,” Kan said. “Instead they see three dudes on laptops. I think they were a little disappointed.”

Still, Kan said, the complete lack of privacy does not generally bother him. The most significant way wearing the camera has changed his life is that he “can’t lie or talk behind people’s backs as much” — although he still doesn’t hesitate to heap scorn upon his critics.

One such critic, Andrew Keen, called Kan’s enterprise “absurd” during a “Today Show” feature in which a palpably skeptical Ann Curry interviewed Kan about the Web site. Kan later said that he thinks Curry was a “bitch,” and scoffed at the critic she cited who suggested he might be embarrassed someday by his antics on camera.

“Obviously, he doesn’t know me very well,” Kan said, “I have no shame.”

Even at Yale, Kan was well-known for his willingness to bare all. He was the driving force behind the 2005-2006 “Men of Branford” calendar — which included a photograph of him wearing nothing but a strategically-placed smear of whipped cream — and a resident of the God Quad, the Branford party suite. Branford Dean Thomas McDow said he remembers Kan as a popular member of the college, and friend Amanda Holland ’05 said she associates him with “God Quad parties, and poker and playing beer pong in the snow.”

Despite his reputation as a free spirit, as an undergraduate Kan also had an interest in both business and Internet technology. Together with Shear and Seibel he submitted two ideas to the Y2K entrepreneurship contest, both of which lost. Still, the friends continued working together after graduation on an online calendar service called Kiko. When Google came out with a similar project, they sold Kiko on eBay, at which point they had to start over from scratch.

“[Justin.tv] kind of started out as a crazy idea I had just driving around,” Kan said. “I always do stupid stuff to get attention, and this is the stupidest.”

The Web site may be a way for Kan to get attention, but its founders emphasize that it is also a business, intended to turn a profit and perhaps lead to spin-offs like a “Sex and the City”-style show following a young female professional in Manhattan. While Kan said they have yet to turn a profit, justin.tv already has several corporate sponsors and partners, including Zipcar and Bawls Guarana energy drink, which is delivered to Kan’s apartment by the caseful.

There seems to be no lack of people willing to spend hours “wasting time watching other people waste time,” as one of the site’s many slogans puts it. Fan sites have already appeared, including Justin.TV Guide, which analyzes Kan’s media appearances and tracks him around San Francisco. It features eight contributors posting several times a day.

But some current Yalies who have heard of the site said they do not see the attraction.

“I’m just not bored enough with my own life to watch someone else bore me with his life,” Saurish Bhattacharjee ’09 said.

Michael Fisher, a professor in the Computer Science department who said he has known Kan for some time through family friends, said it is too early to judge what impact, if any, justin.tv will have in the long term. But the Web site can be viewed as a “grand experiment” in the current debate on privacy, he said. There is precedent for the sharing of personal information online in networking Web sites like MySpace and Facebook, Fisher said, but what is truly radical about justin.tv is that Kan does not choose what he reveals to the public — eliminating any semblance of privacy.

Kan said he has long been interested in privacy issues, and he sees justin.tv not only as an entertaining way to make money but also as a means to provoke public discussion about “taking the power of information out of the hands of the few and putting it into the hands of the many.”

“I think society in general should be a little bit more open,” he said. “You should be able to film everything. We as a society are so wrapped up in keeping things secret.”

But while Kan does not mind being constantly under surveillance — he claims he feels “kind of naked without the camera” — the privacy of the people he tape-records in public has the potential to be a bigger concern, said Katherine McDaniel LAW ’06, a fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Although the laws governing private individuals are less restrictive than the laws governing corporations, she said, she has “no doubt he’s going to get sued.”

Even if he does, Kan might not mind. After all, it would make good TV.

Comments