Identity Crisis: Are You Being Cyberstalked?
For the new breed of teenage microcelebs, exposure to hackers and predators is the price to pay for online fame. But as one attacker learned, Amor Hilton is not gonna take it lying down.
On Friday, December 28, 2007, Amor Hilton went to the North-ridge mall near Los Angeles with two friends. Petite and spacey with wide blue eyes, cotton-candy-pink hair, and a silver nose ring, the17-year-old looked half-anime, half-emo. Maybe she’d buy another Hello Kitty purse for her collection, or some bright new nail polish to match her latest dye job. But mainly, like most kids in the San Fernando Valley, she was just going to the mall to hang out.
The Israel-born Hilton was used to being on her own. Growing up in the Valley, she never knew her father, and she bounced between living with her mom and her grandparents. Sometimes, she’d chum around with the other self-described “scene kids” — young punks who trolled Sunset Boulevard in tattoos, tight black pants, and piercings. Or she’d stay home, log on to her computer, flip on her webcam — and try to become a star.
Every Wednesday night, she hosted a livevideo show on Stickam, a burgeoning do-it-yourself social network. What distinguishes it from MySpace or Facebook is that Stickam lets its 3.5 million subscribers broadcast video in real time as viewers chime in via instant message. It’s a place where Hilton and other like-minded extroverts could become their own reality stars, engaging in goofy, sometimes risquéé confessionals. Kids talking to kids, without any pesky adults interfering — kinda like Peanuts. Or Lord of the Flies.
For Hilton, it seemed like the perfect platform when she first logged on in early 2007. As a little girl, she had dreamed of becoming an actress like her favorite, Hilary Duff, but the reality of auditions and compromises got her down. “It’s so, like, boring waiting around all the time,” she’d say in her Valley Girlese. Her mother was a part-time pinup model (“Like Bettie Page,” Hilton says. “She’s really hot!”), and Hilton craved the same kind of iconic fame. She scored a small role on Hannah Montana as a mean girl, but hated how pedestrian she appeared. “I had to sacrifice the way I wanted to look to do the job,” she recalls.
On Stickam, though, she could be herself. With her pixieish charm and the bubbly appeal of a lovable bad girl, Hilton insinuated herself into the punky popular crowd. She’d preen on camera in American-flag short-shorts on a red shag rug or play drunken voice mails from admiring boys. She began dating and cohosting Stickam shows with an androgynous would-be model named John Hock. One time, she sat at her webcam as two guys soaked in a bubble bath behind her. “I want to get in!” she chirped, before stripping down to her black skivvies and joining them.
And people watched, making Hilton one of the most popular entertainers — or Cam Girls — on the site, racking up more than a quarter million viewers, a modest number relative to TV, but enough to make her a whale shark in this small pond. Hilton saw Stickam as her springboard, and launched her own site for other online pinups, Brutal Dolls. She began hiring other models to pose in Suicide Girl–like regalia.She even parlayed her notoriety into modeling gigs for Hot Topic.
Despite her casual air, she also knew that she was attracting no shortage of creeps.
First there were the come-on e-mails. Then the hang-up callers. Once, she found broken doll parts spread out on top of her car. “It weirded me out,” she says, “but I wasn’t bothered by it.” Hilton has a preternatural ability to compartmentalize, to separate her “real” self from the one online. Amor Hilton is not even her real name — Amor was a childhood nickname from her mom, and Hilton was what girls at school called her. They thought she was stuck-up.
When her pink Hello Kitty cellphone rang at the mall that December night around 8 p.m., she didn’t flinch at what the caller said:”If you hang up, I’ll shut off your phone.” Whatever, she thought, and hung up. It rang seconds later. “I’m serious,” he threatened. “I’m going to shut off your phone.” Hilton laughed it off, and hung up again.
As she sat down in the food court, her friend’s phone rang. It was Hock, sounding frazzled, asking for Hilton. Hock was visiting his mother in Phoenix. But just as he was about to leave for the Greyhound station to return to L.A., he got a MySpace message from Hilton telling him not to get on the bus because she was going to come pick him up. She just needed him to give her his mother’s phone number and address.
Hock thought it was a weird request. But the message was from her account, so he sent the address and phone number along. Seconds later, a private caller rang his mom’s phone. The young guy on the other end told Hock not to get on the bus — or else. Hock immediately hung up and tried Hilton, then her friend. Hilton said she had never sent him the MySpace message. “Where are you?” Hock asked, frantically. “Are you at a computer? Your phone’s not working.” Hilton flipped open her phone.
It was dead.
According to Hitwise, A technology research fIrm, social networks have grown 35 percent over the past three years — more than the proliferation of search engines, and shopping, entertainment, and porn sites.
For teens, the appeal of Stickam in particular is broader than simply keeping track of friends and colleagues; for the generation who grew up on reality TV and YouTube, Facebook and MySpace lack one of the most no-duh big ideas round: live video. While MySpace allows for video uploads on its MySpace TV section, putting live feeds on it or other sites is considered risky — particularly with heightened concerns over child safety online.
In February 2006, the Los Angeles–based Advanced Video Communications launched Stickam to let DIY webcam broadcasters embed video feeds right on homepages on sites such as Xanga, Friendster, and MySpace. Security was still an issue, but under this arrangement, it would fall on the social networks to do the monitoring. “We tried to have good password security,” says Jake Gold, Stickam’s chief technical officer, “and to tell users ways to keep safe.”
For a short time, the service thrived on MySpace, before it was blocked from the site due to security concerns. To survive on its own, Stickam had to employ a self-policing community standard similar to the kind YouTube uses to keep out sex and violence. Stickam also limits membership to users over the age of 13, though it acknowledges the difficulty of enforcing the policy and provides parental controls to help adults keep tabs.
Keeping tabs of the kids who are making the shows, of course, is another story — especially when parents aren’t watching. The horrific potential of this unsupervised frontier was realized last November, when 19-year-old Abraham Biggs broadcast himself overdosing on pills on the live video site Justin.tv. Viewers had egged him on.
The heart of the problem is that, as Gold says, “live feeds can’t be taken down.” Videos can only be banned after the fact, a task that grew more daunting as Stickam expanded from 200 live feeds to 50,000. In addition to relying on users to flag violations, Stickam now employs round-the-clock moderators to monitor the feeds — a system, the company says, that has proven successful.
Then the company had to deal with an unexpected consequence of pairing live teens with live cameras: celebrity.