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A social site where Webcams rule

Stickam wants to blend video, chat and celebrity content into an online empire. Getting Prince to play would help. Image: Stickam-ing it to 'em

Culture
Remember JenniCam? If not, here's a refresher: it was a seven-year experiment in Internet voyeurism, featuring a girl and her always-on Webcam.

Now, imagine hundreds of similar live video feeds of strangers--Jenni's and Johnny's alike--broadcasting from their rooms to a single social network, and that's Stickam.com.

The spirit of JenniCam--which went offline in 2003--is apparently thriving in Los Angeles-based Stickam, a year-old social networking service that urges members to connect with others via live Webcams and instant chat. Because rivals like MySpace won't allow Webcams for security concerns, Stickam appeals to exhibitionists and others who want a freer environment to post personal profiles and chat live, with a camera in their face.

But Stickam is trying to transcend the novelty--and potential pitfalls--of strangers' bedrooms and build an empire bigger than MySpace or YouTube. One of its plans is to add live video feeds of celebrities, musicians and even magicians. In one example, Stickam plans to pipe in live video from a camera at Prince's Oscar afterparty on Sunday, said Scott Flacks, a vice president at Stickam. (The final details are still being worked out, he added.)

In addition, Stickam is building a production studio in Los Angeles to create original video for the site, and it's in talks with Hollywood studios about content partnerships.

One planned show will feature exclusive video from Hollywood's Magic Castle, a members-only club where magicians perform for invited audiences. The company has already featured behind-the-scenes videos of American Idol's Bo Bice and video feeds from the Sundance film festival. It also had a live video chat with musicians Stu Stone and Jamie Kennedy (in partnership with Warner Bros. Entertainment Group), during which 10,000 Stickam members showed up.

"Our goal is to start to create compelling experiences that keep users immersed--like fun, live events," said Flacks, who previously worked at Fox Interactive Media, the parent company of MySpace. "It takes social networking to the next obvious level: not just photos and video, but being able to chat live and reach out in a more personal way."

"It takes social networking to the next obvious level: not just photos and video, but being able to chat live and reach out in a more personal way."
--Stickam Vice President Scott Flacks

The start-up's quest for the limelight is not unlike the struggles of many new Web media companies trying to succeed in the shadow of MySpace and YouTube. Stickam, like others, is trying to appeal to the changing habits of a generation growing up with broadband video, instant chat and virtual environments. And yet it's trying to carve out a niche not yet claimed by the Internet giants, and capitalizing on that early.

For Stickam, the strategy is to act even more nimble than predecessors MySpace and YouTube, which have both been absorbed by larger entities Fox (owned by News Corp.) and Google, respectively.

"Fox's still trying to discover how to provide features to users of MySpace and keep it on the straight and narrow from a corporate governance standpoint," Flacks said."We're a little bit more svelte, a little bit more relaxed. It's not a free-for-all, be we want to provide an experience."

Still, what happens on live video cameras can make parent safety groups and even Stickam members squeamish. The site requires that members be at least 14 years old, and bars obscene or indecent behavior. But because enforcing those restrictions can be difficult, if not impossible, with live video, questionable behavior appears common, according to a quick survey of the site.

One user called "nataliemuffin" says upfront in her profile that she will ban anyone who exposes themselves to her or asks her to expose herself. "I don't usually kick, I ban," she said. "Another one of my peevs is people who come into my room and are over 30. If you're over 30 and you're reading this, please leave my page."

Member "bina," a teen girl, also says upfront not to ask her to get naked or for "cybersex."

Flacks said the service is trying to overcome these problems by developing technology to block inappropriate behavior, and by keeping a team of staff that monitors video feeds, alongside warning flags from members. The company has about 40 staff members.

Stickam.com was spawned from L.A.-based Advanced Video Communications, a maker of video conferencing tools for businesses largely in Asian markets. Early last year, Advanced Video built a Flash video player to demonstrate its video capabilities. That tool morphed into Stickam, a so-called "widget" that people can plug into other social networks to enable live video. Eventually, the company decided to build up its own social network to compete with MySpace, Friendster and others.

"Since October 2006, we have not allowed our users to link to the Stickam service."
--Hemanshu Nigam, chief security officer, MySpace

Flacks said that with its Flash-based player, Stickam can get better quality video feeds. But for now, the company's server base can only handle about 2,000 members streaming live video. Otherwise, its site can crash.

The site has private investors only and no means of revenue, so far. Flacks said that the company is working on developing new and tried business models, including advertising and pay-per-view videos. But, he said, the company is trying to grow its audience first.

The company has early momentum.

Since its launch in February 2005, Stickam has grown its membership to about 400,000 registered users; and it's adding between 3,000 and 4,000 members a day, according to Flacks. (The audience is comprised largely of 14- to 25-year-olds, he said.) Research firm comScore shows that in January, Stickam drew 569,000 unique visitors, up 36 percent from 364,000 in February a year before.

That's just a drop in the bucket compared with MySpace, however; and Stickam only typically hosts a few hundred live Webcam feeds at once. MySpace drew 61.5 million unique visitors in the United States in January, up roughly 42 percent from 35.5 million in January 2006.

Sticking point--child safety
Before Stickam can become the next MySpace, it will likely have to answer to child safety advocates, much like its predecessor had to. Under fire from legislators and parent groups for not going far enough to protect minors from predators, MySpace and others have answered critics by planning new technologies, instilling restrictive policies and hiring a chief security officer.

One of those policies has been to ban members from adding Stickam's code to MySpace pages--code that would give users video chat capabilities.

"All MySpace features and functionalities run through our safety and security teams in order to review product implications that may affect the safe user experience," MySpace Chief Security Officer Hemanshu Nigam said in an e-mail statement. "Since October 2006, we have not allowed our users to link to the Stickam service and have not implemented video chat features, given the potential safety implications such services have on our global community."

Stephen Balkam, founding CEO of the association Family Online Safety Institute, described some of those concerns. They include no surefire method of enforcing age minimums in the community and, more important, of policing what happens in live video feeds.

"While the site posts a number of safety notices, it doesn't appear to have much in the way of monitoring or take down of the more objectionable language, content and 'acting out,'" Balkam said.

Much the way JenniCam did in 1996, Stickam is challenging notions of personal privacy and freedoms, and causing people to ask new questions, like how to teach kids to handle themselves in these new environments.

"Looking real time into another person's life while also watching others looking, texting and calling in is pretty mind-blowing, and we have to run to catch up with how we talk to our kids about such sites," Balkham said.

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