Livestreaming app Periscope reached one million users in its first 10 days
The platform is now available for Android devices
The app can provide an inside look at news events around the globe
It also raises a host of ethical and legal issues
It’s May 2, and in London, the Duchess of Cambridge has entered St. Mary’s hospital to give birth to her second child. CNN Royal Correspondent Max Foster is waiting just outside in a crowded press area. He can’t do much on TV until the baby is born. Instead, he turns to his phone – clamped to a mini-tripod perched atop a trash bin – and chats with thousands of royal fans via livestreaming app Periscope.
One million users joined Periscope in its first 10 days on the iPhone app store. Today, the Twitter-owned platform is two months old and has just launched a version for Android. And, like any new social media platform, it’s at the center of multiple legal and ethical controversies. Here’s how Periscope is shaking things up:
The whole concept of Periscope is to virtually pick you up and plop you somewhere you would never be if it weren’t for the app. Via Periscope, you could get a front-row seat to Wills and Kate leaving St. Mary’s with newborn Princess Charlotte. During his live stream from the hospital, Foster even used the app to tip off viewers when something important was about to happen so they could get to their TVs and watch in high-def.
“There was a point where I was getting an update; I was basically told that Prince William was going to come out of the hospital,” said Foster. “I said, OK, I’ve got an update coming up in a moment, I can’t tell you what it is, but turn on CNN and you’ll be able to see it. And I think people did, because then they came back to me saying: ‘Thanks for the tipoff.’ “
The Freddie Gray protests against police in Baltimore also showed how valuable Periscope can be for watching news as it unfolds. Guardian journalist Paul Lewis spoke to people in the streets via Periscope, giving them an unfiltered platform to share directly with his audience what they thought of the situation. Unencumbered by large TV cameras, Lewis was able to livestream as he moved around the city, bringing viewers powerful images like a community housing project going up in flames.
On a lighter note, you can also use Periscope to accompany a celebrity to Friday night drinks or go behind the scenes on a TV show. Ellen DeGeneres, Mariah Carey, Jimmy Fallon, Chris Hardwick and Tyra Banks are among celebs who use Periscope to connect with their fans. Other celebs like Madonna use Meerkat, a similar live-streaming app. So if you’ve ever wanted to see what it’s like to walk out from backstage onto the set of a late night talk show, you can on Periscope.
And, finally, you can tour a city you’ve never been to. On election night in the UK, CNN’s Richard Quest was riding around London on the top level of a double-decker bus, pointing out the sights as he interviewed experts about the results. He was broadcasting for CNN, but between shots he turned to his phone and answered questions, introduced viewers to the experts and gave guided tours through Parliament Square and Piccadilly Circus. I held his phone, read out questions and watched as viewers from around the world commented to say thanks for giving them an inside look at London on election night.
One thing about Periscope: It’s not a passive medium. Viewers aren’t just watching; they’re totally involved in the broadcast.
When Max Foster was “scoping” outside St. Mary’s, viewers were in control of the conversation, and they had a direct line to tell him what they wanted through the app’s comments. Foster answered questions they had about the royal family, bringing in other reporters from the press pool to weigh in as well. And when viewers wanted to meet some of the royal superfans that were camped outside the hospital, he picked up his phone and took them over.
“I was responding to the questions that people were asking and things that I wouldn’t think to have covered, so that was useful,” said Foster. “They were also directing me around the area. So they wanted to see a statue, for example, I’d show them a statue. Or if they wanted to speak to a particular person, I’d take them over to that person. They wanted to meet one of the royal fans who had become quite well known on TV, so I took them over and had a chat with them.”
And then, of course, there’s the hearts. Viewers of a Periscope live stream can tap the screen to send multicolored hearts to the broadcaster, letting them know in a flurry of color that they like what they’re currently seeing.
“It shows what you’re doing is right,” said Foster. “Getting 70,000 hearts, it’s something you know you’re doing right. … I’m doing something that people do find useful.”
Since the invention of the cameraphone, video editors and the generally design-conscious have pleaded with people to turn their phones horizontally to shoot video. Anti-vertical video PSAs have gone viral.
But Periscope – which is completely designed for use on your phone rather than a browser or TV – unabashedly embraces the much-maligned vertical video format. Meerkat and Snapchat are also optimized for portrait-mode video. I asked Periscope co-founder Kayvon Beykpour why he decided to go against the grain.
“We had this observation that people use their phones in the vertical format and we thought that was the most natural way to start the Periscope experience,” he explained. “People are becoming more comfortable with vertical video.”
Beykpour added that he’s not “religious” about it, and that Periscope will support landscape video “at some point.”
Still, it’s a major turning point for the media industry, which will have to figure out how to make use of all this vertical video instead of simply dismissing it as bad design.
Laws and ethics
Live-streaming apps like Periscope are the new Google Glass – a scary and unknown new frontier of legal and ethical issues.
Periscope: Top tips
People who wanted to watch May 2’s much-publicized Mayweather-Pacquiao boxing match were supposed to pay either thousands of dollars for tickets or $100 to watch it via pay-per-view. But on the night, a third option popped up: Periscope. Dozens of fans streamed it live on the app for free (and illegally). HBO had the same problem just days earlier when ‘scopers streamed the Game of Thrones premiere.
Beykpour didn’t seem too concerned about this, saying that Periscope isn’t exactly the ideal way to watch Game of Thrones.
“It’s just not a good experience – it’s not going to be something that plagues the ecosystem,” he said.
Still, he emphasized that “we have always had a process in place to handle (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) take-down requests. We’ve made it clear to our partners and have stated that we respect intellectual property.”
Seeing the threat from live-streaming apps, some sporting leagues are taking swift action. Broadcaster Stephanie Wei, who reports for FoxSportsAsia and Sports Illustrated, said she had her PGA Tour credentials revoked after using Periscope to stream a practice round of a golf event.
“Everything just felt so natural, almost as if not live-streaming it would be missing an opportunity to do my job in a more informative way,” she wrote in a blog post. “The response to the streams (from fans) was tremendous and overwhelmingly positive. I thought about the possibilities and how Periscope could be a major game-changer in enhancing media coverage of practice rounds leading up to the tournament days.”
“I understand and respect that the Tour needs to protect its broadcasting partners that pay for TV rights,” she added, “but it’s time to adjust to the current, ever-changing media landscape and how people – its customers – consume golf content, especially for content that isn’t going to be broadcast by a partner.”
And rights issues aren’t the only legal and ethical problem live-streaming apps are facing. What happens if a whistleblower decides to secretly broadcast a board meeting, for example? Or, on a more basic level, can you get in trouble for Periscoping as you walk down the street?
Paul Lewis, the Guardian journalist who Periscoped from Baltimore, ran into trouble at one point when bystanders weren’t happy with his live-streaming of the scene. When he suddenly disconnected, viewers began to worry for his safety. He later tweeted, “it ended okay. Folks didn’t like me filming them, I left, quick, and I’m fine.”
As Periscope grows, new issues will come up, but Beykpour is sure the community will “will continue to blow our minds.” The platform recently had its first broadcast from North Korea, and Beykpour said “we had to do a double-take.” What’s he hoping for next?
“I’d love to see a broadcast from Antarctica. I think that’s the only country or territory we have not covered,” he said.
Get to it, ‘scopers.