I Stream, Therefore I Am: What the Rise of Live Video Says About Our Culture Today
Nathan Whipple | On 01, May 2017
When the popular streaming service Twitch announced late last year that they were creating an “IRL” (or “In Real Life”) category for their website, I was a bit skeptical. Up until that point, Twitch had been used predominantly by individuals who wished to stream themselves playing video games. This usually was accompanied by users sending messages into the channel’s chat feed, interacting with fellow watchers and the streamers themselves. Although the social aspect existed in this regard, I still questioned the decision of Twitch to stray so far from its roots: why would anyway want to watch someone eating dinner, or working out at the gym, or simply walking around town? Surely, I thought to myself, people have better things to occupy themselves with.
And then I found myself watching a guy in Germany build a new desk for his PC.
And then a young lady in California creating chain mail armor for an upcoming convention.
And then a team of mechanics in Russia fixing old cars, and talking about how they’re doing it.
While I didn’t watch these channels for too long, the fact remained: I had watched them all the same. Although there are plenty of reasonable inquiries that can be asked, namely why I watched two channels being broadcasted in languages I’m not even close to fluent in, they all share a similar root.
Why were these activities being live streamed in the first place? Why did I, if only for a few minutes, feel compelled to tune in? Why has this seemingly become the “new” social media?
As 2017 rolls on, live video is picking up more and more traction. 81% of internet audiences watched more live video in 2016 than in 2015, and in the third quarter of 2015, ad views on live video were up 113% year over year, higher than any other segment of online video. Some of the largest social media networks in the world now feature some form of live video sharing, from Facebook Live to Twitter’s Periscope, and benefit from their massive built in audiences. But long before either of these companies rolled out their live video services, there was Justin.tv, a pioneer in the field of “lifecasting,” which has since merged into Twitch (at one point a gaming subset of Justin.tv).
Twitch attracts 9.7 million viewers every day, and hosts 2 million broadcasters every month. While these numbers pale in comparison to services such as Facebook (which boasts 1.23 billion daily active users) and their “Live” feature, that still equates into nearly 10 million people a day consuming pure, live content. For Twitch, the “why” is a little more clear cut: the vast majority of those users are interested in content directly related to video gaming, and tune in for such. Broadcasters, in addition to playing games that interest them, have the potential to be paid for their time streaming, either through becoming a “partnered” channel on the site, and through displaying ads while they stream. They have the potential to create a new source of income, viewers still get to choose from a wide selection of games to watch, and once this is coupled with the social aspects, it becomes clear as to why live streaming works for the service. That still doesn’t explain why others, including myself, indulge in this “IRL” content; these non-gaming, slice of life channels.
Perhaps it’s because the world presented to me through these streams wasn’t immediately familiar. According to Livestream, 87% of audiences would switch to online video from traditional television if it meant access to more behind the scenes content. People are naturally drawn to situations that present them with a previously unseen view on a topic that interests them. A lot of behind the scenes content is presented in a short, easily digestible format that can be viewed quickly and without much risk. The very first Facebook Live stream was of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson working out in a gym in Florida, preparing for, among other things, the upcoming Baywatch movie. He’s quick to point out that very few people get access to his workout routine and gym sessions, which in turn promotes the viewer to tune in for longer. Yet still, I have no real interest in working out, and no real interest in the new Baywatch movie. The Rock is a likable guy, sure, but is that really enough to get me to watch a livestream of him pumping iron? Why did I, and so many others, tune in?
Imagine there’s a revolution taking place on the other side of the world. News organizations from around the globe jockey to get to the center of town, to be the first to report on the event. They have their little earpieces, their microphones and TV cameras, and their station manager controlling the broadcast. They’ll undoubtedly give you the most information of the event, and up until recently could give you the best view of just what’s happening. But now there’s a boy with his iPhone, cataloging the unraveling of his world as it happens. Maybe his family is in the background, reacting as if nobody were watching. Maybe they’re packing their bags, ready to leave the only life they’ve known. You may not get a clear understanding of what’s happening, and it probably will be in a language you don’t understand, but you’ve developed something with this boy that you’ll never have with the news reporter.
At the root of all live streaming video is the desire to become more connected. Whether it’s a country wide revolution or The Rock working out, we are granted perhaps the most visceral experience short of actually being with the subject, all the while conversing with users near and far about the events that are transpiring. We have taken the hunter-gatherer tribes of old and evolved them into their intellectual mirrors; groups of people who band together not to survive physically, but mentally and emotionally. Yes, it may be that you watched a live stream of a pregnant giraffe simply because that was the hot button story of the day, but you didn’t read an article about it, or went to your local news affiliate for a video of it. You tuned into the live stream for it. All of a sudden you were there with the giraffe, not getting your hopes up, but wondering if in the next five minutes, she would give birth. You were sharing your thoughts in the chat, or laughing at the comments made by others. You became more connected with the event then previously thought possible.
Soon, Facebook and Oculus will roll out virtual reality chat rooms, in which you can interact with people through the creation of an avatar, in addition to bringing live video into the experience for everyone to interact with. Our connections will become more immersive than ever, and make simply watching live video seem like an outdated concept. While some may argue that a push in this direction in effect makes us “less social” by further bypassing physical interaction, renowned media theorist Marshall McLuhan argues that the medium is the message, in that how something is presented is more important than what’s being presented. A push to embrace live video, and by extension the community it creates, shows that people are as eager to interact and connect with one another than ever before and that no matter who you may be, your audience is out there.
Waiting to connect.
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