The white, expressionless face of Chuck Klosterman stares out at me. Little is perceptible, with the shadows of the video blending in with the heavy browns of his beard. If he's wearing a shirt, its details are equally lost in shadows. But his blinking eyes, outlined in thick black hipster frames, stare out at his webcam.
Below the repeating loop of video is a trigger: Say something to Chuck Klosterman.
No. Not yet. Instead, to the right of the looping video of his face, is a list of recent questions posed to the author of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. Questions range in topic from how to battle writer's block to his favorite novel to his choice of breakfast food. I click one from several days ago: "Why are you doing this?"
"This" happens to be the brave, new New York-based social network launched on November 1st called VYou (pronounced with two syllables, not like "view"), an unusual network based around recording videos of yourself answering user-submitted questions. "Conversational video" is VYou's mantra. Think Formspring meets YouTube -- or maybe Big Think for the common Internet user. VYou already features a roster of impressive names among its users, many known within New York media circles but some more broadly: Choire Sicha from The Awl, author and journalist Will Leitch, Los Angeles Times and Gawker veteran Richard Rushfield, actress Kat Dennings, VYou adviser and investor Rex Sorgatz, founder of Texts from Last Night Lauren Leto, and several personalities you might have found on Tumblr circa 2008. Founders Steve Spurgat and Chuck Reina have worked at VYou for the better part of 2010 with support from a handful of investors.
Back to Klosterman though. The darkness parts and we see the pop culture writer in a yellow shirt, his beard illuminated into shades of light brown, and he begins answering the question, speaking about how his friend asked him to join this just-launched social network:
"It seemed a little weird when it was initially described -- but not that weird," Klosterman says into his webcam. "Whenever I do a book reading or a talk or whatever, my favorite part is the questions at the end ... so I thought maybe this would be a better way to do it.... I wonder if people will ask better questions."
Questions are the driving force behind VYou. Klosterman refers to the other people's profiles on the networks as strange but says he's curious about what people are curious about. Curiosity propels the concept, and with its focus on questions, VYou provides a dynamically social incentive for recording videos. We've had YouTube vloggers for a half decade, but there's a predominantly solitary sense to that crowd. Now people have a video platform that includes an audience by default -- that includes a real, back-and-forth social connection via the driver of questions. The underlying concept is brilliantly rife for riffing.
Yet three broader challenges face VYou in its hopes to revolutionize and trigger a new Q&A video trend:
Transcending Empty Narcissism: There's no greater ego boost than sitting as the star of your own talk show, a bevy of interview questions on deck for you to answer. People love answering questions on the Internet. Remember those old question-based surveys people posted on their Livejournals? That same impulse evolved into the Q&A service called Formspring, which exploded across the Internet last year. And now there's VYou.
Much of VYou's virtue rests on the same question Klosterman implicitly raised: Will people actually ask better questions? Big Think is a successful site featuring famous experts and artists answering questions on video, but that content is curated rather than a spontaneous social network. The challenge for VYou is whether it can cultivate a smart user base that offers that same mix of insight and quirk. The videos should do more than stroke a user's own ego. And many already show such promise--the anthropology professor from the University of South Carolina or Klosterman's thoughtful answers about his writing process. People hunger for this interactivity.
Avoiding The Chatroulette Penis Explosion: We recently saw an attempt at a video-network in the live user-to-user experience that is Chatroulette. We also saw way more profanity and male anatomy than we ever imagined possible. VYou differs in many ways from ChatRoulette, however. VYou's video responses are all pre-recorded, never live. VYou users also can be selective about which questions they answer. But who's to say half the questions posed won't be crass and stupid? Even among its beta users, many of the answered questions veer towards the less insightful. Choire Sicha, for instance, has a video answer for a question listed as "wow, really douchey." Another user received "You're a whore" in her question box.
Will these obnoxious elements kill the potential for substance or fun on VYou? Maybe not. Founder Steve Spurgat anticipates the need to monitor content to prevent a Chatroulette penis-fest. "I am preparing for the potential for abuse in terms of moderation of content so people don't use interactive video in a way that a lot of people think would be really obvious," Spurgat said on his own VYou profile. "We have checks in place for that, and we're building more."
Staying Quirky and Fun, Not Weirdo Central: First glances at VYou reveal significant awkwardness. Associated with each user is a pre-recorded loop of video, and some of these intro video loops are notably strange. We see creepy, in-the-dark Klosterman and Will Leitch. We see Choire Sicha frowning and shaking. One user brushes her teeth. These clips allow for creativity, as do many of the questions posed ("Do you think vanilla ice cream makes you boring?" "Did you ever have a Bukowski phase?"). But that can also be off-putting at first glance and may represent a level of Internet Strange that drives users away.
It's too early to say whether a broader crowd will catch on to the new start-up. VYou has already done several things right -- the deceptively simple and elegant website layout, with its soft greys, pinks, and blues; recruiting an initial user base of smart tastemakers; and finally, latching on to broader trends in what engages people online. A Q&A video social network seems like a logical next step in the evolution of social media. Providing the hook of a question already makes vlogging inherently more social and may be the ingenious missing link connecting a series of concurrent tech trends, made all the more possible by the advent of built-in laptop webcams in recent years.
Will people be convinced to launch dozens of videos of themselves into this new network though? That, for now, remains the real question regarding VYou.