BORED, standing in a long line at the donut shop, I invited the world to come stand in line with me. I whipped out my phone, opened up the Periscope app and panned slowly over the glass window of delicacies. Within a few seconds, there were a dozen strangers peering through the camera. They issued demands in the bottom left corner of the screen: “Point it over there!” “Get glazed.” “Where am I?”
Such is the strange world of live-streaming. In the last few weeks, two apps have launched that let people easily share what’s going on around them in real time. With Periscope and Meerkat, you can dive into one of the streams beaming from smartphones around the world, or broadcast your surroundings for others to see.
So what on earth should we do with it? Neither Meerkat nor Twitter, the company behind Periscope, are the first to try their hands at live-streaming. Protests around Ferguson last year and Occupy Wall Street in 2011 were aired live through sites like Livestream and Ustream.
But now, live-streaming seems to be having a moment, says T. L. Taylor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who’s working on a book on the subject. These apps have made it easier than ever to do it yourself.
“We’ve gotten to a point where it’s fairly easy to do technologically,” she says. “Things are really shifting and developing quickly. It’s an exciting time to watch it.”
First using Periscope, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I looked out of the window as someone drove through San Francisco. I waited for the Tokyo subway. I saw lots of pets, usually asleep, their owners cooing behind the scenes. The experience was intriguing, but also underwhelming.
The problem is that we’re still figuring out when to use these apps and how to do it right. During one of my streams, for example, I was briefly chastised by a viewer for holding my phone sideways rather than upright.
While this trend is in its infancy, the moment is ripe for experimentation – whether that means Swedish cooking shows, walking tours of New York City or watching astronaut Chris Hadfield describe his space suit. (All things that people have already tried.)
Users are still trying to see what works, says Jeetendr Sehdev at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “No one really knows what sort of live-streams are going to catch on.”
Down the line, Sehdev thinks that success on the apps will be about the bond that viewers feel with the live-streamer. On other video services like Vine, Youtube and Snapchat, ordinary people have accrued millions of followers and expensive ad deals by sharing their lives online. A year from now, we might well be writing about the first breakout crop of Periscope stars.
Periscope has already proved itself useful for journalists, too. Last week, a gas explosion knocked down several apartment buildings in New York City, and a streamer was there to put viewers on the scene. The apps make it easier to get breaking news out on social media fast, and harder for troublemakers to spread false information, says Jeff Howe, a journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts.
“The crowd is great at being at the right place at the right time and happening to have a smartphone,” he says.
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