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Periscope, Congress and the aliveness of video

Nancy Van House, professor emerita in the School of Information | June 29, 2016

A group of people sitting on the floor, many holding signs. One after another making speeches. People milling about. Some looking at their phones. On and off, chanting, call and response. But this time the men are in suits the women mostly in skirts and heels. (No doubt some wishing they had worn pants that day.) This was, of course, the Periscope broadcast of the sit-in by Democratic members of Congress June 19.

The Democratic congressional sit-in was an historic departure from the House’s rules and practices. But it was historic in another way. Live-streaming video on social media officially went mainstream.

This is the more famous of two recent news stories that I want to use to think about live-streamed user-generated video and how it may affect our understanding of emergent technologies, social media, and our shared world.

Before the congressional sit-in, many people had never even heard of Periscope or its competitor, Meerkat (including Scott Peters, who had never heard of it until he downloaded it on the floor of the House). Likely, more were aware that Facebook had added a live-streaming capability, Facebook Live. But now anyone who follows the news knows at least the general concept of Periscope: video streamed live online via phone.

In recent years, social media has been central to protests worldwide, including Arab Spring, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter, to name a few. Twitter and Facebook have received the most attention. Twitter in particular is invaluable for real-time reports from people on the ground.

Screen grab of live-streamed video from Oakland BLM 2014.

Screengrab of live-streamed video from Oakland Black Lives Matter 2014.

Social media has been used to inform and coordinate participants, and to monitor and publicize the activities of the authorities. It has also been employed to show the rest of the world events from the perspective of demonstrators. Instead of professional journalists and institutions that tend toward simplifying the issues, with sound bites and attention-getting visuals like violence and vandalism, some of the participants themselves can speak directly to the public. The myth of the objective reporter has been replaced by an understanding of witnessing as political, and as a competition for the audience’s attention, trust and support.

Activists’ newest social media tool is live-streaming, video broadcast in real time over the internet. People live-streamed from many of the Occupy sites in 2012. During the Black Lives Matter protests in Oakland and Berkeley in 2014, I followed live-streams from the nightly marches. Nearly every time there was at least one streamer, mostly broadcasting via UStream.com. Then, all a streamer needed was a video camera (a phone would do), a portable internet connection and an encoder that most carried in a backpack. With this equipment, someone marching with the protesters could broadcast from along the way. Since Periscope and Meerkat were introduced in 2015, and Facebook Live became widely available in April 2106, it’s even easier.

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Rep. Scott Peters’ Periscope stream shows the number of people watching

Visual media are especially powerful in conveying lived experience. Photos and archived video can be scrutinized, revisited and dwelled upon. They convey much more than the media-maker intends or controls. Video adds motion and especially audio, making it even more effective for invoking the embodied experience of the witness on the ground. It is not just informational but affective. The viewer’s experience is visceral as well as intellectual.

(Live-streamed video can be archived, but isn’t always. Periscope recently changed its policies so that video doesn’t necessarily disappear after 24 hours. Scott Peters’ Periscope videos from the floor are still visible at the time of this writing. Some of the Oakland Black Lives Matter videos are still online.)

Live-streaming adds to the already potent medium of video immediacy, continuity, proximity, and emotion. The event is unfolding now; the viewer knows no more than anyone else about what is going to happen next.

Live-streaming video is continuous and unedited. The Periscope broadcast from Congress showed much more than, say, a TV news summary with video clips and soundbites. No one has chosen for the viewers some moments and edited out others. Events have not been re-ordered, camera angles chosen, narration added after the fact – viewers are seeing the unvarnished, raw video.

Viewers are close to the action, even in the middle of it. The C-SPAN cameras overlook the well of the House from a high distance or are fixed on the podium. The Periscope camera, by contrast, was down among the people sitting-in and milling about. We were looking over someone’s shoulder, then at someone’s back, as the camera moved through the crowd. We overheard snippets of conversation. Suddenly Barbara Lee or John Lewis was within touching distance. We saw the congresswomen on the floor scooching their skirts down as they tried to find a comfortable position. A few enviable members had found places to sit with their backs against the podium and legs stretched out.

Immediacy, continuity, and proximity contribute to the affective power of the video. On the congressional Periscope stream, we saw a parade of impassioned speeches, often telling the stories of people who had been killed by gun violence and the suffering of their loved ones. We saw the pictures and papers with names of people killed by gun violence. An account of that evening could never convey the passion and frustration of the members of Congress, the power of the pictures and individual stories, the exceptionalness of that event. And we saw the tedium of an all-nighter, which underscored the determination of the participants.

One effect of live-streamed social media is that viewers see the people on the screen not as types or abstractions but as individuals. The viewer knows more about them and can better empathize with – or criticize – them. The Congress members sitting uncomfortably on the floor and speaking from the podium without a microphone came across as pounding on the door of the Speaker of the House.  We see their anger and urgency, desperate to do something. Our emotions are engaged.

We also see some of their less admirable traits. I was offended when a tall congressmen made a comment about a congresswoman being short and then acted as if he was going to lift her up behind the podium. I wished she would elbow him in his stomach.

And, if the people on the floor had been watching the Periscope comment stream, I could have told him so. MSNBC carried the Periscope stream, but those viewers missed the full experience. Periscope is synchronous. Comments appear like balloons alongside or even on top of the video image, floating up from the bottom of the screen and fading, to be replaced by new ones. When a new viewer logs in, their name floats by. During the congressional sit-in, the comments overloaded Periscope’s system. Of those that got through, some were critical, many were supportive and they were in languages from all over the world. Pastel hearts rose like bubbles in aquarium alongside the video image. Pastel hearts aren’t an especially good fit with a staid congressional sit-in, but that is how Periscope watchers signal “liking.” (Peters joined Periscope at the beginning of the sit-in, and three days after the end of it his profile showed that he had received 2.3 million hearts.)

Interaction on Periscope is immediate. Viewers are participants: they can affect the action in real time. A common kind of Periscope broadcast, different from what we saw from Congress, is someone speaking into the camera and responding to comments as they flow up the screen. For example, the day after the Brexit vote, a news broadcaster outside 10 Downing, waiting for the British prime minister to address the press, was on Periscope answering questions from viewers. As on other social media platforms, some comments were rude, ignorant or tangential. This man got admiring comments on his looks and questions about his marital status. But there were also useful questions (“Can there be a revote?”) and observations. (One question: “How did you hear about [Peri]Scope? Was it the US Congress?”)

Screenshot, news broadcaster answering Periscope questions in front of 10 Downing St.

Screenshot, news broadcaster answering Periscope questions in front of 10 Downing St.

Video-streaming doesn’t mean that viewers necessarily know what is “really” happening. Mainstream media often offer the illusion of objective, complete information, or at least the most important information. I would argue that one of the strengths of live-streaming is that it demonstrates that no one can know everything. Live-streaming is clearly the limited view of one person, one camera, in a specific place and time. Neither the streamer nor the audience always knows what’s happening. But with participant-produced media,, many posts from different people can accumulate to show a variety of partial, situated perspectives.

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Screengrab of Antonio Perkins on Facebook Live just before he was shot on screen

It is not just the famous and powerful or large groups who become complex, living individuals when we see them on live-streaming. The other news event I want to talk about is the recent shooting of a young man in Chicago named Antonio Perkins. He was streaming on Facebook Live when he was shot and killed. The video is no longer on Facebook, and the New York Times has posted only a short segment, but the full video can still be found on YouTube.

The longer video begins with a young woman talking cheerfully via video with another distant woman.  She’s charming, apparently enjoying the image of herself on the screen, commenting on her own hair. We see a group of young people hanging out on a warm evening, passing the phone around to talk to this friend. Antonio is holding the phone when we see him distracted by something. He looks up and his eyes follow something. He looks back at the phone, then suddenly up again. We hear a panicked “Wha’s up?” and shots. The scene is jumbled as the phone falls. We see grass and red and hear screaming. What stays with me is the sound of people screaming and calling for help, and, most of all, a woman screaming, pleading, commanding, “Tony, you’re OK. You’re OK, Tony.”

This is a very different from what we may imagine when we hear about a young black man shot and we think, another gang member. It is also different from the snippet on the New York Times where we see and hear the moment of the shooting and a few moments immediately following. With a longer video, more time spent with Tony and his friends before and after the event, we have more empathy for them as actual people, not stereotypes.

Video posted online is not without controversy or risk. Some protesters have demanded that streamers not show activities that make the demonstrators look bad. Some have accused streamers of doing the police’s work for them. Sam Gregory, head of WITNESS, an NGO that trains people to make human rights videos, warns that some video-makers don’t fully understand the risks to people who can be identified in the videos, or the persistence of media online. (WITNESS has worked with The Guardian Project to develop an Android app, ObscuraCam, that blurs faces after a video is made and before it is uploaded. But doesn’t work on live-streaming.)

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, and more recently with the mainstream media bringing distant events to us via television, in particular, an extensive philosophical, historical, and social science literature has arisen questioning the nature of witnessing: Who speaks, and for whom? How do potential witnesses earn attention and trust? What is the moral responsibility of the distant witness? Susan Sontag has eloquently asked whether repeated exposure to violence has inured us to the suffering of others. (At first she said yes, but later she said no.)

Traditionally, we have privileged the first-hand witness, the person who was there and then. With the rise of mass media came questions about what is called media witnessing: witnesses by, through and in the media. Distant witnesses hear reports from journalists and from first-hand witnesses, and we see for ourselves via video. Once again, philosophers and media theorists ask what is the moral responsibility of distant witnesses. Much media witnessing is after-the-fact. With live-streaming, the question is more immediate and urgent: What do we do? What can we do? Right now?

Media witnessing has been described, following Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, as an assemblage,  a dynamic, mutually constituting composite of people, institutions, technologies and practices. These elements are continually changing and their relationships re-arranged. Even the boundaries of the event change: When I watch the video of Antonio Perkins’ killing, is the event then, in Chicago, or here, on my computer, in my home?

A philosopher and prominent theorist of media witnessing, Paul Frosh, argues that viewing others’ suffering through the media powerfully increases empathy, the emotional and intellectual sense that others are like us, that we live in a shared world. With participant-generated video, we literally walk in their shoes. From this comes collective judgment that can lead to collective action, via the political system or otherwise.

This is the point where I might present a utopian forecast of our technologically enhanced future, or a dystopian warning about same. But no. A fundamental premise of Science and Technology Studies is that technology is not pre-given but continually performed. It is at the intersection of technological objects, practices, values, and understandings that what we call technology is repeatedly enacted. The tools that Periscope and Facebook make available become what we know them to be when people incorporate them into their practices, their lives, and develop new practices using those tools.

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My casual, unscientific sense of Periscope is that it has been used primarily for soft-core porn, travel videos, amateur sports and music, and random people talking to the camera and hoping for an audience (a man with a user ID saying he’s looking for a wife; two young women lying on a bed talking about God). But live-streamed video has also been appropriated by activists to communicate urgently with the public. What was revolutionary about Scott Peters’ Periscope streaming from Congress was that members of the power structure, in this case, Democratic members of Congress, used it as protesters in the streets have, to bypass barriers placed by the (more) powerful, the Republican leadership, to speak directly to the public. What is notable about the video of Antonio Perkins’ killing is that it brings us closer to people who, we discover, are not that different from us. Both videos show the informational and emotional  power of the immediate, intimate, continuous view of events produced by live-streamed video.

The challenge now is to find ways to use the power of video, especially live-streamed video. The Bay Area media have agreed to focus on the intractable problem of homelessness this week. What about live-streaming from a homeless encampment? A Syrian refugee camp? Refugees crossing a border? These may not be great suggestions, but my point is that we have the opportunity to find ways to use this technology of intimacy, immediacy, and emotional impact in ways that increase our knowledge of the other and reduce the suffering in the world.

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