Live programming was traditionally the elite preserve of TV and radio broadcasting, reserved for prime-time specials like royal weddings, football matches and CNN’s on-the-ground coverage of, for instance, the first Gulf War bombings of Baghdad. The takeover of live broadcasting by digital media, and specifically the Internet, was a step-by-step process, an evolution that took place at a speed limited only by technological capabilities, from Jenni, the first webcam celebrity, posting her 30-second updates in 1999 to the broadcasting of the Paris terrorist attack from the Bataclan nightclub on the citizen-journalism tool Periscope before TV1 reached the scene in 2016. From 2016 onwards, live broadcasting on social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram brought the evolution of the notion of being live before a global audience full circle.
The possibility of broadcasting to a global audience from wherever you are, while useful, has also resulted in some of the worst content on the Web – pointless personal musings, Chatroulette and new genres of amateur porn, to name just a few. The notion of being live is still rather new, of course; perhaps it will simply take time for people to get used to the function and grasp its creative possibilities on a more worthwhile level. A more functional use of live broadcasting can be seen in live surveillance. That can mean checking if the kids are in bed when you’re out to dinner with your spouse, but also checking the driveway via your security-cam connection in a fit of holiday paranoia. The most obvious problem of live broadcasting is that it’s possible to do so unwittingly via a spyware-connected webcam on your personal computer; you may be watched as you go about your daily life. Webcam blockers and stickers to ensure privacy are in common use already, evidence of a growing understanding of how live broadcasting technology can be less appealing when it is not used by choice.
An emerging function of live broadcasting by smartphone with an instant upload connection to platforms like YouTube is eyewitness camera use in cases of police brutality – so common in the United States that many African-American citizens have taken to recording misdeeds on their smartphones in threatening interactions with the police. So being live turns out to be useful in a new way.
Chatroulette is perhaps the most notorious of all live fads. The chat platform, launched in 2009, had a simple setup: it randomly matched visitors using a video connection and a chat screen. You could either engage in conversation or press the ‘next’ button for a new random match. While the randomness of the matches was fun (and still is – the service is still online), it meant that in most sessions (with many ‘nexts’) you were bombarded with below-the-waist images of shameless exhibitionist masturbators, only occasionally meeting someone interested in actual conversation – usually in groups, since the setup of random direct contact is a little daunting. The artist duo Eva and Franco Mattes experimented with the harsher side of random intimacy in their video work No Fun, staging a suicide scene on their end of the chat and screen-recording the wide array of responses from their matches. Some laughed, some giggled incredulously, some panicked, some were worried and called the police.
Above: Live sleeping with the YouNow #sleepingsquad.
Is this the ultimate digital decadence? Sleeping live, broadcasting yourself unconscious to the world, and doing so as part of a like-minded (if dormant) community? The idea of broadcasting your life is just the next step beyond updating your status on social media channels – but doing so without even being conscious is, to say the least, an interesting fad. YouNow provides live broadcasting searches and has the so-called #sleepingsquad community. You hit “record” on the webcam and snooze or go full coma while your audience comments on… what exactly? Your well-deserved rest? Your sleeping attire? Your snoring?
Above: Live broadcasting on Periscope of the Bataclan terror attack.
The ability to broadcast live suits today’s accelerated media space, and with plenty of anxiety in the air at all times, the terror attack at Paris’s Bataclan nightclub marked the first true peak moment for the live broadcasting app Periscope. The video content posted on Periscope during the attack was the best, or at least earliest, footage of the panic outside the venue; as such, it was used by all the big global news agencies and broadcasters, bringing citizen journalism one step closer to live media domination. The night of horror also brought another live first: Facebook gained world attention for its Safety Check function that allowed users geolocated as being in the area to announce their safety to online contacts. Helpful, indeed, but also an ominous new step in the media company’s claiming of governmental functions in society.