For example, starting in London, I watched a young illustrator answering questions about her travels, followed by a disability rights worker filming his walk through Russell Square. Scrolling west across the Atlantic and over the US, a noisy early morning school assembly was being recorded (possibly covertly) in Santa Ana, California; while back across the map, a young man in Barnaul in Russia tried out his English on camera. Seconds later, I was in a car in the Northcote area of Melbourne as Lachlan Taylor and his friends broadcast their drive home from a night out. It’s easy to see why Periscope says its intention was to create something akin to teleportation.
When it launched in March this year, having been bought by Twitter prior to its official release, Periscope attracted tweets which said it was like “staring straight into the future” or that it was “the future of social television”. While this might sound like early-adopter hyperbole, the possibilities of what the technology can do are already being demonstrated by a loyal following – Periscope welcomed 1m users in its first ten days, taking some of the shine off its live streaming rival, Meerkat, which had debuted to much acclaim at SXSW in February. While Meerkat and Periscope offer portable live broadcasting, on YouNow, the live video site that launched in 2012, the content (and there is all manner of ‘content’ on YouNow) is more often framed via the user’s desktop, though a mobile app is available. On YouNow the experience is more like a live web-cam chat room, complete with a feed of comments scrolling by at the same time. The territory is not for the faint-hearted, or indeed the easily bored (#sleepingsquad is a YouNow community dedicated to watching people sleeping), but the two newly-launched apps are in good company. According to The Verge’s Ben Popper, in May last year YouNow saw a surge in user uptake and went from less than 10m monthly visitors to more than 100m in just four months.
Periscope videos started off small-scale. One of the first memes to emerge was people filming the contents of their fridges, while others walked their dogs, captured sunsets and nice views, or just sat and talked. But as wider usage picked up, journalists began to experiment with the format and live interviews started to appear; newsrooms opened up to streaming prior to making a TV broadcast. Katy Perry – the most followed person on Twitter – declared she didn’t mind if her concerts were streamed via Periscope (some pre-show interviews had already gone out tagged with #Perryscope), and said that seeing a sea of phones held aloft was, for her, like “the new applause”.
Then on May 2, Periscope made headlines in the aftermath of the high profile boxing match in Las Vegas between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. Despite Twitter’s assertion that the 60 or so streams that had popped up during the fight were shut down (most users were simply pointing their phones at their pay-per-view television broadcasts), Mashable journalist Christina Warren later claimed that she was able to watch half the fight over Periscope, alongside some 10,000 others tuned into the same stream. Suddenly the copyright implications that live streaming apps might have on live events and TV broadcasting were laid wide open. And just as killing one stream meant that another one cropped up, users even speculated on how to work the system to their advantage – during the Vegas bout viewers realised that ‘hearting’ a stream (touching the screen during a broadcast to generate an appreciative heart symbol) attracted Twitter’s attention. So they refrained from doing so and watched albeit fuzzy, small-screen versions of what was one of the biggest pay-to-access spectacles of recent years.
At the time of my Periscope-enabled car trip through the Melbourne suburbs, however, the live stream listed as having the most viewers was a broadcast coming out of Paris made by someone on their way to see the Mona Lisa. This was Euro Maestro, a name familiar to many regular ’scopers for his popular tours of the French capital. He talked as he filmed his bus journey to the Louvre (the bus audibly bumping a cyclist on the way) and answered viewers’ questions about the part of the city he was in and what he was going to broadcast that day. It was clear that ‘Maestro’ was a bit of a pro at this – his Louvre broadcast mixed tourist enthusiasm with tour guide local knowledge – but, despite his skills, he wasn’t being paid to do it. In fact, Maestro spends around €2,000 a month organising his sorties to various Parisian landmarks; on entrance fees, travel, equipment and a mobile phone plan that sees him eat through over 100gb of data per month. “Why do you do it?” asked one commenter as Maestro’s camera revealed the ornate walls of one of the Louvre’s many rooms. Maestro, who like many Periscope streamers attempts to read the comments out as he broadcasts, responding live to most of them, replied: “Because it makes people happy. People see things they thought they’d never ever see.”
Maestro has notched up over 500 broadcasts since Periscope launched and tries to stream every day. “I’ve had a few broadcasts with thousands of viewers,” he says. “Among the most popular are the museum visits, to the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, the concerts – with authorisation obtained – boat rides, food festivals, street performers, as well as the usual tourist sites like the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe or a visit to Jim Morrison’s grave. I use Periscope to give people a window on the world; to see things remotely; to give them a sense that they are there. One particular time I was broadcasting from within Notre Dame Cathedral and highlighting some of its beauty and architectural treasures. A woman said that it was so important to her because she had always wanted to see Notre Dame but wouldn’t be able to because she has cancer. I was so choked up that it was very difficult to finish the broadcast.”
For Maestro’s followers, what he provides so well is access. And in the world of streaming, this isn’t so different from the access to live ‘in-game’ footage that video gamers have been enjoying via Twitch, the platform that evolved out of the Justin.tv broadcasting network and that is now owned by Amazon. While over 600 gamers might watch ‘Miss Rage’, a “fulltime streamer” getting stuck into Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, or check ‘LtZonda’ playing Grand Theft Auto V, chucking up on-screen images of cars grabbed from Google mid-game, streamers only really become popular if they have something interesting to show, or say. During his Louvre broadcast, Maestro has much to say on the building and Paris in general, but when he points his camera at the Mona Lisa and holds it there, the comments and ‘hearts’ fly in from all over the world. While the Louvre doesn’t pay Maestro to do any of this (and he always acquires the permission to film), it could well be something they offer in the future. For example, in the UK, the British Museum has already worked with the technology, recently filming a walk-around its current Defining Beauty exhibition on ‘the body’ in ancient Greek art.
“As a museum of the world for the world, we are always looking to experiment with new ways to share our exhibitions with both those who do visit us and the audiences that cannot,” says Chris Michaels, the museum’s head of digital and publishing. “Mobile technology and social media offer incredible ways to do that and Periscope is a brilliant new innovation.” The broadcast is not a replacement for the first-hand museum experience – but then it doesn’t claim to be. “There’s no substitute for seeing these objects up close in the exhibition space,” says Michaels, “but this broadcast gives us an amazing opportunity to broaden the potential audience and to give them additional interpretation from expert contributors. We hope the two opportunities will complement each other.”
For the British Museum’s first Periscope, presenter Dan Snow was brought in to introduce and tour the exhibition and the digital team succeeded in making an engaging 30-minute film. It wasn’t without its technical difficulties, however – there were a few seconds of mobile interference midway through – but it had an effusive charm that revealed its direct lineage to live TV. In one section of the broadcast, working live from a commenter’s request to see “the wrestling women”, Snow and curator Ian Jenkins tried in vain to find the sculpture, only for them to reveal it was in fact a depiction of a woman fighting off a satyr (“He’s got an erect penis down there which has broken off,” Jenkins added as they reached the object). The unrehearsed nature of the broadcast seemed fresh and involving, far less formal than a lecture or talk might be.
While institutions might benefit from the Periscope ‘tour’ as an extension to what they show in their physical space, journalism is one area where the technology could work its way into the centre of things. In April, The Guardian’s Washington correspondent, Paul Lewis, filed two reports from Baltimore amid the rioting that followed the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who had died from a head injury obtained while inside a police van. Lewis’ first broadcast begins in the west of the city and moves towards the epicentre of the violence in the east. Along the way he grabs quick interviews with several people directly affected by the riots – he talks to a distraught local pastor, Donte Hickman, for example, and also films congressman Elijah Cummings as he addresses a crowd. At one point Lewis ends the stream when looters object to his filming.
As well as a presence and immediacy that is captivating for the viewer, retained even when the film is viewed on The Guardian’s site, Periscope also offers an interactive element that journalism hasn’t previously encountered, even on Twitter. “We can see what our audience thinks of our journalism, in real time, and respond accordingly,” says Lewis. “The feedback mechanism of comments appearing on screen is crucial and like no journalistic tool I’ve seen before.” While Lewis believes the technology is no doubt intuitive to anyone who’s recorded video on a phone, working out what viewers find valuable about Periscope, and how to exploit its interactive element, is trickier. “There are no hard and fast rules, but I think Periscope videos are best when they are close up and intimate,” he adds.
Lewis’s Baltimore films were certainly that and make for compelling viewing. At the same time, the technology at his disposal doesn’t suit every story. “I think there need to be more high profile events, like the Baltimore riots, for the technology to be taken up,” says Lewis. “It took at least a year or two – arguably longer – for Twitter to become omnipresent in journalism. I am a strong believer in using the right tool for the right moment, and there has not, in the last month, been something I have reported on that I felt demanded a Periscope broadcast. But I am sure that will change.”
Like any other Periscope user, Lewis makes the choice of when and what to broadcast. Having that capability available at any moment may mean that, as the technology improves, we will be spending more time going live and direct. What the next defining event will be for Periscope is anyone’s guess. Either way, it seems a given that, as Lewis said at the end of his first Baltimore stream: “We’ll keep Periscoping through the night”.