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The Future Streams

April 2, 2015

Last Thursday, I spent a good fifteen minutes on my phone staring at a man in some city in California eating an Apple, talking to me (and a few dozen others) about his life in real time. Then I went on to watch someone skate across the busy NYC sidewalks, and then I turned to a woman in the south, making a sandwich for her husband as I came upstairs from my own meal. I ended that small session with myself, explaining on live video how to solve a Rubik's cube to a handful of other people in the world. I was on Periscope, a fairly new app re-introduced last week by Twitter. Periscope is one of several brand-new services that allows anyone to live-stream their life to the rest of the world in real time, and there's a lot more to it than you would think from its app description. These are my thoughts on Periscope and live-streamed videos

Live-streaming services first rose to the spotlight several weeks ago in the annual South by Southwest media festival, with the debut of the app Meerkat, a Twitter-based live video service where you can have what is essentially a one-way video chat with your face on one end and the rest of the Internet on the other end. A few weeks later, Twitter's own Periscope also debuted with praise and attention, as it garnered its own share of users sharing their daily routines, live and open to the Internet. Both of these applications do the same thing, and do it fairly well. In principle, what they do -- live, real-time delivery of information -- isn't anything new or special. In fact, Twitter itself has been filling that niche for quite some time, so much so that "live-tweeting" is a part of the social media vocabulary. Live video is exactly that, but on a different level. Periscope's own team describes it as the closest thing to teleportation. And to be honest, that's not too far from the truth. On the day that Periscope debuted, when a fire erupted from a building in New York City, a journalist from Los Angeles was instantly watching the event as it unfolded, live, before any article, social media post, or tweet could even be sent out. And that accelerated pace of communication and connection, not just in bits of text but in a form so close to you actually being on location is pretty amazing. Imagine, as a journalist did during a protest, if a live video feed could show you exactly what it feels like to be a part of a protest hundreds of miles away, or exactly what is happening during an entertainment festival on the other side of the country. Live video is not just a way to communicate; it's a way to share your perspective with everyone else, through the lens of your camera. And with that idea, it brings the world closer together.

"We became fascinated by the idea of discovering the world through someone else’s eyes. What if you could see through the eyes of a protester in Ukraine? Or watch the sunrise from a hot air balloon in Cappadocia? It may sound crazy, but we wanted to build the closest thing to teleportation. While there are many ways to discover events and places, we realized there is no better way to experience a place right now than through live video. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but live video can take you someplace and show you around." - Periscope Team

Despite its newfangled appeals in our world that craves speed and information overload, there are some obvious setbacks, the most important being privacy. As we learned with the introduction of Google Glass to the public, inconspicuous cameras pose a significant threat to privacy in public spaces, and the concern is even more valid if, at any given moment, the photo or video taken could be being streamed halfway around the world unknowingly. I witnessed during my brief time with Periscope everything from innocent bystanders accidentally filming the people next to the Periscope users without their notice or permission, to broadcasts that were straight-up violating the obvious legal limits of any kind of media online. If indeed live video is the direction online communication is headed, the issue of privacy in public spaces is a discussion that needs to take place quickly* and responsively. I think privacy is a notion that's constantly in evolution as technology develops. A decade ago, when Facebook was barely two years old and YouTube still used the old 4:3, square-like aspect ratio, it would have been completely outrageous to propose real-time location sharing or live-tweeting an entire sports tournament in 140-character chunks, let alone streaming your entire life in all of its glory to the public. Yet today, most of us (myself included) don't mind sharing our location within our social networks or talking about the events in our daily lives with the rest of the world through Twitter. Rather than saying that live video is necessarily violating any construct of privacy, I think a more accurate description may be that our bounds between our private lives and public ones is not moving fast enough that technology is beginning to surpass that boundary.

Emerging live-streaming video brings with its taste of the future a fair share of moral complications.

At the end of the day, we have yet another new piece of technology that has both the potential to legitimately expand the horizons of what technology can offer to our society as well as the potential to disrupt how we view technology from moral and legal perspectives. Personally, having been a part of the growing audience of live-streaming video for a week, I want this to be the future of digital communication. The first thing I noticed about live video is that everything happens in the moment. Most of the Internet, as the saying goes, is written in Ink. Whether you're talking about YouTube videos or anonymous comments, they last forever, and we create things online to be viewed forever, or at least for several weeks or months. But live video, by its definition, is instantaneous. When it's past, it's past. I think that kind of an atmosphere closer to real interactions, combined with the conversational ways in which people interact on video, made for one of the most "human" ways to communicate in streaming video, and I definitely felt it.

But regardless of whether or not Periscope or Meerkat "makes it" in the months to come, I saw in live video some of the most authentic interactions anywhere online, and if that's any indication of the future of digital communication, I'm excited for it.


* Of course, if the recent "discussion" on the limits and morality of "religious freedom" legislations in many states is any indication, I think it's fairly naive to hope for a mature and objective discussion from the legal sector of our society. But we'll see.