What’s our obligation when watching people livestream illegal, stupid, or potentially dangerous activity?
This weekend, my wife and I watched a small group of young men snort cocaine off the back of a laptop, swig whiskey straight out of a handle, and briefly flash us one of their penises (and asses). At one point, one of them began using a Zippo lighter to ignite a cloud of aerosol spray, the tried-and-true method of creating a tiny flamethrower, which subsequently set off some kind of beeping smoke alarm in their apartment. The young men were completely unabashed in sharing their illegal and debaucherous activity with us and over a hundred other audience members.
We didn't see all this happen right in front of us, I should clarify, but we might as well have. We were part of an international audience watching a broadcast on Periscope, a livestreaming video app released last month by Twitter.
Periscope and its predecessor Meerkat, another rival streaming app released recently, have quickly gained the attention of many tech bloggers, and it's easy to understand why, even including more mundane broadcasts than the one I described above. Both apps offer quick and easy ways to broadcast a live video feed from your iPhone (both are iOS only, for now) publicly to a global audience. Both let you swiftly switch between the front-facing and rear-facing "selfie" camera to show your expressions or give a Darren Aronofsky-style sense of intensity to your movements.
You can broadcast for almost as long as you would ever like (within the limits of your phone's data plan) and can read and respond to viewer comments in real time, creating a powerful sense of intimacy and immediate two-way feedback between audience and broadcaster. Both apps broadcast their videos publicly by default, including a live web view that lets even those without the app watch, and Periscope stores a public replay for your video for 24 hours.
Interestingly, Meerkat chose to use Twitter for its login and comments system, yet is made by the rival, dystopian-sounding company " Life On Air, Inc." Both apps thrive on the immediacy that Twitter offers, and highlight live video broadcasts from the people you follow on Twitter, but importantly, they also surface quasi-random live video feeds from broadcasters around the globe. Meerkat calls this "Community Picks," suggesting that it surfaces video based on popularity, while Periscope offers a seemingly more random list of new broadcasts under the label "Watch."
I've been using Periscope almost daily in the two weeks it's been available, mainly as a viewer, and I've been alternatingly intrigued, amused, shocked, and dismayed by what I've seen. For those of us that remember Chatroulette, the randomized video chat website that was briefly popular half a decade ago, these livestreaming apps may carry a sense of deja-vu, dropping you instantly into the life of some rando, one who may or may or not flash you his genitalia.
But in my experience, Periscope has been much more fun and varied than Chatroulette. There are two reasons to think it and Meerkat will be popular for longer than their ill-fated forbear. The first is that Periscope and Meerkat, like Twitter itself, allow for passive consumption. You can watch what someone else is broadcasting without engaging them at all. Chatroulette automatically turned on your webcam and that of your chat partner, exposing both of you to each other. But the one-way watching experience on Periscope and Meerkat lets even the most private among us partake as audience members.
Probably more important is the fact that both Periscope and Meerkat are mobile apps, letting broadcasters take their phones with them anywhere and opening up a much wider domain of filmmable activity—both in terms of physical geography and activity type—than what was possible with previous, desktop-based livestreaming platforms. YouNow, an app still popular among teens, was one of several apps to help pioneer this idea, but hasn't really caught on in other demographics.
Most of the broadcasts I've seen on Periscope have been fairly innocuous, boring even. I've watched broadcasters give impromptu tours of their hotel in Ohio, show the view from their rooftop balcony in Brooklyn, hold Q&A's tucked in their beds, annoy their pets, and film lots and lots of food they're ordering, eating, or making.
The broadcasters have varied in every conceivable major demographic: gender, age, and location, from American dads to Middle Eastern teens to everyone in between. The primary subjects of the broadcasts seem to be things in everyday life, which is why I'm not surprised that illegal, taboo, and potentially dangerous activity is also showing up.
Last weekend's big movie, Furious 7, was reportedly being illegally livestreamed on both apps. I've seen several broadcasts of people smoking or vaporizing marijuana. As the most popular illegal recreational drug in the world and certainly one of the safest, that shouldn't really be so concerning, except perhaps to parents of young kids. (Both apps are rated 12+.)
Many other broadcasts openly promise nudity or displays of sexuality ("Hot girlfriend strips"), though few deliver, and many of the commenters on Periscope mirror the lowbrow nature of YouTube and other popular video sites, demanding female broadcasters show skin or perform sex acts.
Most troubling to me are the people who film themselves using Periscope while driving cars, which I've also seen on a few occasions. Given the fact that texting while driving is outlawed in many parts of the US, this seems like a clear violation of the spirit of the law, if not the letter. It also seems risky to both the broadcasters and those sharing the road with them, as some commenters on the live videos do point out.
Whether Periscope or Meerkat will begin blocking these streams and those of other types of potentially dangerous or illegal behavior remains to be seen. (A Periscope rep said the app's content guidelines forbid sexual and harmful content, while Meerkat has not responded to a request for comment.) But I doubt they could catch them all, especially since a broadcast can change in mid-stream from harmless and legal to illegal and potentially harmful.
Interestingly, it can be quite easy to identify the people perpetrating these risky or illegal behaviors, especially if they show their faces, share their locations (as both apps tacitly encourage broadcasters to do), or attach any authentic information to their accounts. Meerkat requires Twitter to login and all comments are posted publicly on Twitter, but of course it's easy to create a pseudonymous Twitter account; Periscope allows for email logins. As both apps statein their respective terms-of-service documents, the content broadcasters share is open to anyone in the public.
From what I've seen of Periscope so far, it's troublingly easy to imagine a scenario of someone causing themselves or others real bodily harm, even death, live in front of an audience from around the globe. All it would take is some common misfortune like getting in a car accident, taking too many drugs, or something else.
Again, that's not much different from the way things have been for the past several years since streaming video became convenient. Video broadcasts of gratuitous physical harm can be found with ease online, and there been a number of alleged suicide attempts and purported suicides broadcast live on various online platforms, most of which were quickly scrubbed by the hosting websites. But with mobile apps, it is easier now than ever to capture potentially dangerous moments, and easier than ever for an audience to watch them unfold in real time.
That brings up perhaps the thorniest question of all: the role of the audience. What moral obligation do livestreaming spectators like myself have when watching people broadcast themselves doing stupid and potentially harmful things? Tell them to stop in the comments? Email Periscope or Meerkat? Call local authorities? What would we do if we saw these things in real life? How about when other commenters are encouraging potentially dangerous behavior? At least for me, I've found myself simply watching, and doing so far longer than I would if the same scenes played out in front of me, which undermines my own sense of morality.
Although I know they're taking place in real life, the live scenes I've watched on Periscope seem somehow abstracted by the barrier of the screen, like these people are just characters in some faraway drama. But they're people just like my wife and I, and I don't wish harm on them or anyone else—nor do I want to revel in their risky activities as a form of entertainment, at least not in my best sense of self.
The advent of Periscope, Meerkat, and whatever more hi-def, immersive virtual reality live apps that follow are going to force us to confront the truth that people have been circling around for a while: online life is real life. There is no dividing line anymore, if there ever really was one. Everything we see on the screen that looks real may in fact be reality. What we do with that knowledge is an open question.
Periscope and Meerkat have some truly amazing qualities, connecting us with other people and showing us their humanity with all its splendor and warts. They may even help us vicariously enjoy and destigmatize activities that aren't necessarily harmful to anyone else, such as taking recreational drugs.
But these apps also place a new burden on all of us who use them, forcing us to clarify our notions of right and wrong and to ask ourselves what kind of people we are, and what we do when we see something we deem as fishy on screen. I don't have many answers, but I know at least one thing for certain: we're all voyeurs and exhibitionists now.