Because it took me a long time to figure out what Twitter was good for, I’m being careful about Periscope, the video streaming app that Twitter now owns and is integrating into its platform. Early impressions of anything can be deceptive, and I approached live streaming with the same skepticism I brought to sending out tweets of 140 characters. But I wound up folding Twitter into my professional networks and now find it indispensable in my daily work.
Will Periscope go the same route? Armed with the app, which can be downloaded for iPhone or Android, your smartphone becomes a live broadcast tool. We’ve gotten used to shooting video on a smartphone, but to get it out meant sending the video file to someone else. We’ve also gotten used to tools like FaceTime, which allow people to hold a visual conversation. “Live streaming” takes the final step, by allowing you to broadcast live what your phone “sees,” with the capability of saving the video for later use or simply streaming it for fun to family and friends.
Periscope has surged to the fore in this niche, and now it has been joined by Facebook Live. Suddenly you are the anchor-person of your own broadcasting service to your social network.
Like Periscope, Facebook Live lives in your smartphone, and although neither app can be considered difficult to use, Facebook Live is simplicity itself. If you want to make a status update – i.e., send a message that your friends on Facebook will see – you normally just type it in the box. Now that Facebook Live is available, you have the additional option of a video icon. Choose that and you are online, broadcasting to those who have connected to you.
Periscope lets you reach your Twitter connections. Because none of my contacts on Twitter use it, I looked at the app’s global map and choose cities where a lot of live streams were happening. I could then scroll through still images of the ongoing live videos, picking any one of them I wanted to see. Most of them involved people looking into the camera and talking about themselves, occasionally reacting to the incoming messages that showed up on the screen, along with ‘hearts’ that display how people in the audience are reacting to the video stream.
This was not what I would call edifying stuff. In fact, it was stupefying, especially when I wandered into the category called #bored and discovered that it really was filled up with people who were doing nothing more than broadcasting themselves live while they talked about how bored they were. After a few minutes of listening to some of these, I could see why.
But live streaming has better uses. Turning any smartphone user into a potential broadcaster can make for enhanced news collection as people witness nearby events. Journalists are experimenting with the format because Facebook now lets TV stations push their off-air signal directly into the live stream. That means broadcast quality, which is why the CBC used Facebook Live to broadcast recently from Brussels to discuss terrorism there. If high-quality live TV can flow directly onto your phone through these streaming apps, the already lively social media news scene will be greatly extended, a serious plus for news organizations.
Almost any local event can suddenly have a live audience. With its connection to Twitter, Periscope will profit from the same trend, and it will be interesting to see how these apps handle the challenges of competition. Both Periscope and Facebook Live have moved to auto-saving video streams, and Periscope now allows users to live stream video from drones. Who would have thought that buying a smartphone and drone could turn you into an airborne videographer?
A buzz continues to build around these apps that will take time to turn into serious accomplishments, but my hunch is that live streaming will find a durable niche. Both Periscope and Facebook Live have easily usable apps, but in a world of 1.6 billion Facebook users, that added button on the Facebook app looks like a winner for Mark Zuckerberg’s team.
Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.