How Ustream Works

Be your own broadcaster on Ustream.
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Have you always dreamed of speaking to the world but don't have the training or experience to become a professional broadcaster? Do you feel you're destined to be watched and adored by millions of people? Well, if you have a webcam and an Internet connection, will allow you to start living your dreams.

Ustream started with U.S. Army Officers John Ham and Brad Hunstable who wanted to provide a new way for deployed soldiers to communicate with their families. Before Ustream, soldiers could only use a telephone or instant messenger to talk with their loved ones, limiting their contact to only one person at a time. Officers Ham and Hunstable partnered with Dr. Gyula Feher, and in the summer of 2006, they released Ustream, a "live, interactive video broadcast platform" that allowed soldiers to communicate with friends and family simultaneously across the globe [source: Ustream].


The idea is pretty simple: Provide a common area for a person to broadcast him or herself and allow the broadcaster and viewers to communicate instantaneously. According to the Ustream Web site, it allows "anyone with a camera and an Internet connection to quickly and easily broadcast to a global audience of unlimited size."

Since 2006, Ustream has grown exponentially and moved from a service that helps soldiers stay in touch with their families to an outlet for hundreds of thousands of people to discuss and showcase everything from current world events to the joy of newborn puppies. In fact, the site hosts more than 10 million viewers a month and between 10,000 to 15,000 individual broadcasts every day [source: Ustream]. It requires no downloads and can be embedded just about anywhere.

Are you already dusting off your webcam in preparation for your big debut? Well, before you start sending yourself down the information superhighway, let's take a look at how this service works.  


The Power of Interaction

Ustream was founded with the idea of bringing people together, so it's not surprising that it provides an interactive experience for its users. Individual audience members can communicate directly with the host and each other in a variety of ways, which means that the viewers of a show can actually influence the direction of its content.

The most common form of interaction between a host and his or her audience is through the various chat and messaging options Ustream provides. During a broadcast, viewers may have the choice to chat in a standard IRC (Internet relay chat) instant message format, similar to AIM or GTalk. People can also use their Twitter IDs to log in to ongoing social streams by clicking the "T Social Stream" button on the top of the chat box. These chatting options provide Ustream users with an open forum, allowing them to communicate with each other and the broadcaster in real time. By granting hosts and their viewers so much freedom to interact, Ustream fosters the creation of interactive online communities, and broadcasts have the ability to become uniquely intimate, engaging events for everybody involved. However, chats are optional, and some broadcasters may choose to avoid them completely.


Instant polls are another way broadcasters can interact with their audiences. At any point during a broadcast, a host can create a poll by clicking the "poll" button in the upper-left corner of the screen. The questions and answers are written by the host and can be about anything. Regardless of the topic, polling the audience allows hosts to gain a more thorough understanding of the consciousness of their listeners, allowing them to refine the content of their broadcasts.

Although it's much more indirect, one of the most vital methods of interaction between a host and his audience is establishing and adhering to a schedule. After all, the audience isn't going to just sit around and wait for broadcasts. Virtually all shows with any sort of community follow a strict schedule with clearly defined broadcast times.

Click over to the next page to see how recent political events brought Ustream unprecedented success and which celebrities use the service to connect with their fans.


Who Uses Ustream?

snoop dogg
Snoop Dogg -- Ustream celeb.
Jared Milgrim/Getty Images

Ustream is a place where anybody can broadcast their opinions, interests, video game skills or even their puppies, kittens or termites. Many groups and organizations use Ustream to expand or enhance their services. Numerous radio stations, including Fox News Radio and Air America, use Ustream to stream their broadcasts live, providing a free visual alternative to the radio. CBS has a live breaking news feed on Ustream, and local news stations from across the globe stream their broadcasts to the Internet with the service.

Ustream has also become a popular destination and outlet for famous people. From politicians to actors and musicians, Ustream provides a new way for celebrities and their fans to interact, and their presence has brought millions of additional visitors to the site.


In 2008, for example, Ustream went political, and it was a huge success. Just about every candidate running for president broadcasted from Ustream at some point during their race, from Barack Obama and John McCain to Libertarian candidate Mike Gravel [source: Reuters]. But the biggest boost for Ustream came from the Republican National Convention (RNC) in September.

Approximately 7 million people watched the RNC conference via Ustream. They watched the RNC proceedings directly from the Ustream site, individual blogs, their MySpace or Facebook pages as well as countless various news and political Web sites. It was a huge event for Ustream, and aside from giving a massive traffic boost to the site, it helped many people understand the differences between Ustream's live, streaming service and a prerecorded video outlet like YouTube. It also paved the way for the 7.7 million people who streamed President Barack Obama's Inaugural Address in January 2009, although there were multiple Web sites providing live streams for that event, not just Ustream. Still, Ustream was the most popular choice, as more than half (3.8 million) used the service for the event [source: Reuters].

Political candidates are not the only famous people who frequent Ustream, however. Many celebrities, from A to Z-list status, use Ustream to promote their projects and connect with fans. Ashton Kutcher, Snoop Dogg, Miley Cyrus and Perez Hilton all broadcast shows of one kind or another. (Ashton Kutcher hosts a one-man show where he cracks jokes and replies to comments from viewers, and Snoop Dogg chats with his audience and basically just smokes marijuana.) Regardless of whether you're watching the Jonas Brothers read letters from their fans or P. Diddy frequenting New York night clubs, you'll probably find someone or something that catches your interest.


Ustream Search

Although it might not be the most popular video broadcasting Web site out there (that honor goes to and its plethora of live sporting events), Ustream provides a unique service for a constantly expanding user base [source: TechCrunch]. It offers viewers thousands of different programs across a wide range of topics. Ustream's video categories include:

  • Live (featured programs currently broadcasting)
  • Mobile (broadcasts from mobile devices)
  • Sports
  • Entertainment
  • Gaming (covering everything from video games to poker)
  • News
  • Animals
  • 24/7 (shows that are always live and broadcasting)

Each category has multiple subcategories (Entertainment/Comedy, Animals/Dogs, Music/Rock). The diversity of Ustream's content ensures that if you're looking for something to watch, you can find a show you're interested in, or, if you're broadcasting, potential viewers can find you.


Ustream's service, however, is not without its downsides, the most obvious of which is its inconsistent internal search engine. Its results are sporadic and indicate that Ustream has no ability to weed out content not related to a specific search. To complicate matters further, the broadcasters who create the shows are the ones to source and tag the programs, and they often link wildly inaccurate search tags to their broadcasts in the hopes of attracting more viewers. A search for "Shiba Inu" (Ustream's most popular broadcast is the Shiba Inu puppy cam, with, as of May 2009, close to 15 million total page views) brought up only six results. There were two Shiba Inu cams, one eagle cam, a drawing program, a local news broadcast and a show about computers. A subsequent search for "Shiba Inu" returned identical numbers, but different content. The two Shiba cams were still there, but the results also included a comedy broadcast, a video-blog, a radio station, another local news broadcast and a mixed martial arts show.

If you're new to Ustream, your best option probably is to just click on a subcategory you're interested in and continue searching until you find what you're looking for. It might take a little while to find something you like, but once you do, it's easy to locate the program again. Just hit the blue "Follow" button above the broadcast window, and it will be stored under your community settings on the top of the screen. As long as you're logged in, you can easily sort through your favorite programs. Also, Ustream provides links to similar broadcasts, so once you've found something you like, it's easy to find other broadcasts you'll enjoy.


Broadcasting Live from Ustream

As long as you have a webcam and a reasonably fast Internet connection (a minimum upload speed of 320 kbps is recommended), all you need to do before kicking off your broadcasting career is to sign up for a free Ustream membership [source: Ustream]. Simply hit the "Sign Up" button on the homepage to get started. From there, you'll have to decide on a login name and password and choose whether you want to tie your new Ustream broadcasts to your Facebook page. Ustream also allows you to use your OpenID (a single username and password used for all your online identities) with your new account if you want to. You can even choose to import your email contacts and/or Twitter followers, which is great if you want an easily accessible list of people who might be interested in checking out your show.

If you want to get started right away, you can simply name your show and hit the "Broadcast Now" button. Then, all you have do is decide if want to broadcast immediately, broadcast and record, or record and broadcast later. Your other alternative is to head over to the "Save My Show" option, which will allow you to select the settings for your new endeavor. You can upload a show logo, choose your show's category and subcategory, enter a description and even create search tags so people can easily find your new program.


Your options don't end there, however. After you get past the basics, you'll have an array of tabs and options to choose from. You can change or refine just about any aspect of your new show, including everything from the size, color and font of your text in the "Design" tab to scheduling a specific time for your broadcast by selecting the "Schedule" tab. You can even adjust your audio quality and video resolution if your broadcast is jumpy or you're experiencing a lag. To make sure you don't get overwhelmed, Ustream also offers tips and tricks to help you select appropriate titles and categories to ensure that your show finds an audience.

One of the more important options is the ability to password-protect your broadcasts. If you're planning on becoming the next Internet celebrity, this option is probably not for you. However, if you're broadcasting a more private event, such as a wedding, you might want to limit who has access to the show. Colleges often use this option for online courses and student projects, giving students the ability to review professors' past lectures and critique each others' work, all while remaining in an isolated school environment [source: EDUCAUSE].

For more information on Ustream and other social networking sites, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Blodget, Henry. "Live-video Startup Upstream Saved By Puppycam." The Business Insider. Nov. 24, 2008. (May 14, 2009)
  • Broida, Rick. "" PCMag. Aug. 7, 2007. (May 13, 2009,2817,2167969,00.asp
  • EDUCAUSE. "7 Things You Should Know About Ustream. October 2008 (May 11, 2009)
  • Graham, Jefferson. "Live Video Takes Off on Sites Like and"
  • USA Today. Dec. 10, 2008. (May 13, 2009)
  • Holahan, Catherine. "The Story Behind the RNC's Streaming Video." Business Week. Sept. 4, 2008. (May 13, 2009)
  • November Learning. "Global Broadcasting with Ustream." 2009. (May 12, 2009)
  • Peacock, Marisa. "Traditional Media Failing to Capture Citizen Interest." CMSWire. Sept. 26, 2007. (May 12, 2009)
  • Schonfeld, Erick. " Just Got a Redesign, But is Still Beating Its Pants Off." TechCrunch. July 1, 2008. (May 12, 2009)
  • Schonfeld, Erick. " is Bigger Than Hulu … Overseas." TechCrunch. March 25, 2009. (May 12, 2009)
  • Stirland, Sarah Lai. "Republican National Convention Streams Online." Aug. 2, 2008. (May 13, 2009)
  • Sutter, John D. "Online Inauguration Videos Set Records." CNN. Jan. 23, 2009. (May 13, 2009)
  • Reuters. "Katalyst Media Teams with Ustream to Create Entertainment Experiences and Content Through Live Video on the Web" April 21, 2009. (May 14, 2009)
  • Reuters. " Continues Rapid Growth, Secures Financing, Appoints General Wesley Clark …" Dec. 18, 2007. (May 13, 2009)
  • Ustream. "Ustream Homepage." 2009. (May 11, 2009)