The Live Stream Goes Mainstream

In early 2011, Skype bought a mobile video startup called Qik, which had developed an app that let mobile users record and stream videos in real-time which others could be alerted to and then view. If that description sounds similar to the newly hot live-streaming apps Meerkat and Periscope, it’s because the overall concept introduced then is not all that far off from what’s happening today on these new platforms. But what’s different this time around are these apps’ potential to reach the mainstream.

Welcome to the era of the live stream.

When Qik was acquired, the company had grown its user base to 5 million – not a bad showing in the early days of mobile, where still apps catered to a largely more technical crowd and hadn’t yet found their ways in the hands of grandmas and teenagers and everyone in between. As with today’s live-streaming apps, Qik offered a way for users to instantly share their world with others, but like many things that bubble up in this industry, it was a concept that arrived too soon.

Qik faced a number of challenges during its day, not only in growing its user base, but it also had to overcome technical hurdles, as well. For example, Apple even once blocked all apps that were doing live video recording, if you can believe that, because they initially had to take advantage of a restricted screen capture API in order to function. Meanwhile, the mobile networks themselves were unprepared for the massive use of data that the iPhone was delivering, which sometimes led to the degradation of the shared streams.

Technology advances have solved most of the challenges with regard to the roadblocks involved with recording and sharing live video with a touch of a button. We’ve seen the results already, as people raised their phones during events like the Occupy Protests or Arab Spring.

But these new live-streaming services push things forward yet again.

And they won’t only succeed because the tech now works better.

We’re Comfortable Living In Public

More importantly, our cultural mindset has changed to the point where we’re ready to embrace this sort of public performance. Meanwhile, as viewers, the smartphone’s ubiquity means we all have an easy way to tap into these ongoing streams from anywhere.

To the former point, social media has trained us over the years to not be able to see something of interest without feeling motivated to share it.

Whether that’s a beautiful sunset or a raging fire, like the one that ravaged a building in New York on Periscope’s launch day, many people’s first instinct is to whip out their smartphone. It’s not just the Facebook and Instagram “likes,” or the tweets and retweets that have led to this psychological reconditioning, though they’ve certainly contributed to this behavior. It’s that these apps have made us feel less alone in the world – by sharing our lives we feel better connected to others. And some would argue that seeking connection is a cornerstone of the human condition.

One could also argue that the motivation can turn chilling at times – we pull out our phones and record when we should be offering help. We broadcast what we see as bystanders, cameras pointed outward, while entirely self-focused in the process. Live streaming’s move to become a mainstream activity could make that problem worse than it is today, of course, and we as a society should remain vigilant to combat our narcissistic tendencies.


But the potential for these new apps, Periscope and Meerkat and others like them, goes beyond our immediate desire to record and share. We have other means for that, after all, including apps like YouTube, Vine, or Instagram, for example, as well as Twitter itself and Facebook.

The Live Broadcast, Reimagined

With live streaming, there’s also a sense of being able to pick up a phone to instantly fight back against the existing establishments, whether that’s the brutality and militarization of the police, or even just the traditional news outlets who these days turn tragic events into sensationalized stories. Their need to provide 24/7 coverage has turned once trusted news sources into platforms for punditry, talking heads and misinformation.

The younger generation, especially, is poised to embrace alternative means of accessing the news in ways that stretch far beyond simply tuning into the “evening broadcast.” Live streaming is but one example. They’re reading stories in their social feeds – digesting content told in bite-sized format via services like NowThisNews or Snapchat Discover. And the newly announced HBO-VICE deal, which will bring a daily news cast to HBO’s channel (which is also now breaking free of its ties to cable TV), is all about the destruction of the anchor desk.

Meerkat Home

We’re ready for the new news, and that’s the promise that Periscope, Meerkat and whatever else comes next delivers. News told as first-hand streams: this is what I’m seeing, you can see it too. And with the traditional news journalist removed from the action. It’s the next logical step beyond the tweet, or the tweeted photo. It’s the hundreds of potential cameras live on the scene before the media truck arrives. It’s the citizens’ right to record materialized.

Software Needs Improvement Ahead Of Mainstream Adoption

That said, today’s platforms are far from perfect as it stands now. There’s no good way to find the important streams among those which feature someone recording their lunch – Twitter’s often-cited reputation for banality and self-involvement again rearing its ugly head. The streams on Meerkat offer no replay button. You can’t tweet links to streams. Periscope’s web view only points people to an app download. You can’t search streams by keyword. Streams don’t have their own “trends” section to help you find what’s catching flame. Push notifications are overwhelming and impossible.

In other words, while the live-streaming apps of the earlier era had to fight to make their services work while facing often-hardware based technological challenges, today’s apps have to make their systems work at the software level. They need better user interfaces, expanded but simplified feature sets, and their content needs to be accessible from any platform, both as the live stream it began as, and the recorded video that came after.

These technical and design challenges, however, are all that stand in the way of live streaming being used only by the early adopter, highly mobile crowd, and being a mainstream activity, as commonplace as a status update and just as simple to produce. And these days, change happens quickly.