Over the past month, hundreds of kayaktivists surrounded Shell’s massive Polar Pioneer drilling rig in a Seattle harbor. Scenes from Seattle were broadcast live by smartphone using the Periscope app. People watched on their phone, on Twitter and some news media embedded the Periscope feed.
Like many, we’ve been keeping an eye on the buzz around apps that broadcast live video feeds from your smartphone. Most of the chatter is (or was) about Meerkat and Periscope but there are also similar apps like Rhinobird and Stre.am.
Of course, livestreaming isn’t new and broadcasting live video of your cat for all the world to see doesn’t seem especially relevant to climate or social justice organising. But Periscope’s use to cover events like recent riots in Baltimore has created a lively discussion about how livestreaming can support activism and enrich digital storytelling.
Handheld streaming apps shift the landscape in a few intriguing ways:
- Livestreaming is now free and accessible to all. You need a smartphone, a Periscope account and some solid bandwidth — still hurdles for many people in many parts of the world but the skill and technical barriers are very low compared to just six months ago. And you just open an app on your phone to find and watch a livestream. This makes livestreaming a big public direct action easy and you’ll see more and more of this happening. Reporters are using Periscope to live broadcast events like those in Baltimore after the killing of Freddie Gray.
- You get immediate multi-direction engagement with an unlimited audience (or a private audience). This has network building and engagement written all over it. The audience can also be targeted by letting people know about the broadcast in advance.
- Content control and ownership gets blown up. People are livestreaming concerts and even TV broadcasts of the Game of Thrones. For now, this is like stealing cable but also having the ability to send that stream to everyone connected to Internet from any place you want. This also means there will be people livestreaming your organisation’s actions and events when you don’t want that happening.
But quick and easy livestreaming poses several concerns and obstacles. A few of these include:
Bandwidth is a huge issue. In many parts of the world you’re not going to be able to stream video. Signals becomes jammed up fast at big events in cities with great bandwidth coverage. Cell phone companies cap mobile data, perhaps significantly raising the costs of sending or receiving livestreams. Server capacity could be an issue. Rhinobird works around this by being peer to peer – it doesn’t clog up a single server/bandwidth host.
- Privacy, security and safety. Security analyst Graham Cluley outlined several reasons to be concerned about the amount and type of data being sent with your livestreams, location data being at the top of the list. Not only will people know where you are (and aren’t) but there are companies analyzing livestreams for commercial purposes. They may not have nefarious intentions but everything broadcast is out there for others to use. During Occupy, people with cameras and livestreams were more likely to be arrested. Journalists, often toting smartphones with Internet-connected photo and video capability, have been subject to arrest or abuse while covering events like Ferguson and riots in Baltimore.
- Misinformation. Livestreaming can be a fast and loose process. Doing it on the fly from a phone can leave needed context lying on the ground, nowhere to be seen. Facts can be be wrong in a hurry. And you have minimal control over how people respond to or interpret your stream. Be sure to provide context and narration to a livestream. Have people you know watching and engaging viewers. Livestreaming is powerful in part because it is immediate and transparent but be sure to understand the problems this can create.
- Nobody cares. Just because you can livestream it doesn’t mean anyone wants to watch it. This is untrod ground but worth testing what works and how to best engage people with it. But be sure to create and share content with a clear purpose – so it’s meaningful to others – and have metrics that help identify progress and success.
Let’s Put Handheld Livestreams to Use
Want to get Periscope and other apps working for you? Here are some ideas. What else can you think of?
- Events. If your bandwidth holds up, this is the obvious application of handheld livestreams. Take people onto the street. Let them ask questions and help guide the experience. People can engage in a march as it happens down the street or across the country and the usual filters of time, news editing/reporting aren’t there.
- Direct actions. Actions are events you have some amount of planning and control over. You have an advocacy goals in mind, are likely notifying an audience in advance and already Tweeting and Facebooking notes and photos from the action. Interactive livestreaming bumps the engagement up a notch or two. Greenpeace has been working on a tool (or set of applications) that would better connect direct action livestreams with social media audiences and other supporters. Find out more in our story about a recent hackathon in Amsterdam where developers worked on the project.
- Training. Livestream a training event for the public, staff observers or even participants in another location. Staff and others can ask questions and provide live feedback. You can already do this with Google Hangout and other tools but a handheld livestream makes it possible to broadcast from outdoor direct action, canvass, street team trainings and other events. Note that you have the ability to make your Periscope broadcast private.
- Crowdfunding. A livestream could take people inside a crowdfunded project in new ways, let them ask questions and see details they want to see (not just what you think they should see). Or stream the beginning of an event or action and ask people to kick in a dollar, five dollars or some amount to continue watching the full event. This could also just be some sort of voting system rather than a fundraising action.
- Drone footage. If you can livestream an event from the ground then why not do it from the air? I don’t know what the implications are of this but letting an online network watch or even help control a drone (or other unmanned vehicles) has some curious possibilities. There’s even a blog out there exploring the intersection of Periscope and drones.
- Security and safety. Livestreaming can expose data about your location putting you at risk but it also exposes data about your location and activities that makes your whereabouts and action known. The Alibi app is similar to Periscope and built for security. Alibi doesn’t livestream but it does record and save one hour of video from the time you launch it.
We’re anxious to see how organisations, activists and communities use Periscope and other handheld video streaming tools to help extend reach and engage networks. What do you think?