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some of the worst parts of high school social life—a teenage boy boasting about beating up a kid at school, with commenters hurling insults about others’ physical appearance, and people showing a general lack of respect for each other. (That broadcast probably violated at least one of Smack’s community guidelines.)
But another broadcaster, a young French woman living in the U.S., told her viewers early on that she wanted a positive chat. She sat eating a crepe and talking with another young woman who asked to join as a guest broadcaster.
In the third broadcast I watched, two young men were cooking chicken in the kitchens of their respective homes. I was their only viewer for a few minutes, and it seemed like they knew each other and just wanted to (remotely) cook together. But they didn’t mind me watching, and one even invited me to join as a guest broadcaster.
One thing is for sure: Smack Live’s users aren’t shy. Stuto says one time a group of teenage girls were broadcasting their chat while wearing masks for cleansing their facial pores. Others broadcast from bed or in the bathroom while brushing their teeth. “It’s not weird to them,” he says. “That’s normal.”
At this point, Stuto and I laugh about how we sound like geezers, even though the age gap with teenagers is small. “We are literally in our mid-20s, and to us this is crazy talk. They’re really not that much younger than us,” he says. But “we will just never be able to fully empathize with them.”
“It’s difficult to understand, even for myself, because we just grew up differently,” he adds. “We didn’t have access to this type of technology in our handheld devices when we were going through high school.”
The first product that Stuto and his co-founders—Kevin Flynn, 32, and Franco Iudiciani, 23—built was SmackHigh, essentially an online message board for high school students. Students can anonymously submit social news, and a fleet of thousands of volunteer students sift out offensive items and post the rest on SmackHigh’s Twitter, Snapchat, and other social media accounts.
SmackHigh has accumulated more than 1 million subscribers from over 11,000 high schools, Stuto says. It has more than 20,000 volunteer “brand ambassadors.”
Stuto’s company decided to move next into live group video because users were submitting a lot of video content on SmackHigh. “Teens and young millennials are becoming more comfortable showcasing themselves over video,” he says. “Snapchat is the number one proof point.” (Snapchat started as a photo-sharing app, but added video capabilities in late 2012.)
Meanwhile, the list of live video broadcasting apps is growing. Periscope helped kick off the trend, and was later acquired by Twitter. Facebook and Instagram (owned by Facebook) both introduced live video features this year. Other players include YouNow.
But most of the apps Smack Live competes with only allow one person—not a group—to broadcast to a large audience. Group text messaging (think SMS and Facebook Messenger) has become crucial for many smartphone users, and Stuto thinks “live video is going to be the next solution for how to take these group chats to the next level.”
“It starts to become not just a cool thing, but it becomes a utility and necessity for enhancing one’s social circle and social value,” Stuto says.
If he’s right, we could be glimpsing the next step in the evolution of social media and communications technologies. I wonder if this is a stepping stone on the path to widespread use of virtual reality, for example.
Meanwhile, Smack introduced an app on Monday aimed at people like me who prefer their group video chats to remain private. Called Fam, the app is available on iOS as an add-on for Apple’s text messaging app, iMessage.
Interestingly, people in more than 40 countries have downloaded Fam, and it quickly shot to the top of the download rankings among free apps that integrate with iMessage, Stuto says.
“It’s definitely blasting way past Smack Live’s traction to date,” Stuto says, though he declines to share specifics. “I suspect there will be a strong, continued amount of buzz surrounding this.”
Of course, there is a lot that could go wrong for Smack. What if Apple builds a group video chat function directly into iMessage, rendering Fam unnecessary? Facebook and Snapchat could similarly introduce features that compete more directly with Smack Live. Competition from big tech companies could be hard to overcome for Smack—which has six full-time employees and has raised about $2.1 million in venture funding to date, Stuto says.
Smack will also have to figure out how to make money. The startup hasn’t generated any revenue yet. With Smack Live, Stuto thinks the company could give viewers the ability to give money to broadcasters; Smack would take a cut of those transactions. It could also have brands and advertisers pay for popular Smack Live broadcasters to showcase their products on the app, Stuto says.
For now, Stuto says Smack is focused on adding users. I probably won’t become one of the regulars, but I came away from this experience with a better appreciation of young millennials and what makes them tick. And that’s pretty cool.
Or, as the kids would say, that’s lit. OK, I’m still lame, but at least I’m trying now.
Just don’t ask me to start sharing rainbow-vomiting clouds on Snapchat.