There’s nothing new about streaming video from your phone, or posting live news updates from important events. But now companies are trying to make the experience of streaming your life more real than ever before — and they’re doing it by telling us very dangerous white lies.
Image by Alexander Supertramp via Shutterstock
Livestreaming started with Justin.tv in the 00s, or maybe with reality TV in the 90s. Hell, maybe it started with those pictures Mathew Brady took of Civil War battlefields a century and a half ago. It doesn’t really matter when people first got the idea that moments from everyday life should be preserved in a permanent medium. Because now we’re at a point now when you can’t turn around without somebody filming your ass with livefeed app Periscope and posting it to Twitter.
What’s arguably new about Periscope and its rival app Meerkat is a feature most likely inspired by the popularity of Snapchat. In case you haven’t had the dubious pleasure of trying it out, Snapchat is famous for sending pictures and vids that disappear after a set number of seconds. Similarly, Periscope and Meerkat post a link to your feed on Twitter so people can watch it live — but only for a set amount of time. Once you shut the feed off, it’s gone. Poof.
This is what makes Snapchat and Meerkat and dozens of other livefeed apps feel so much more real than what you get from watching 10 year-old shit on Justin.tv or 1862 glass plate photographs of the dead at Antietem. Livefeeds are just like experiences in real life. You live through them and then they are gone forever. This ephemerality is makes a livefeed seem more valuable and special, more fully alive. Watch it now or it will be over! It also encourages people to broadcast things that are trivial or maybe even embarrassing. I mean, if it’s only going to be streaming for like a minute, who cares? Probably only a few people will watch, right? And even if a zillion people watch, it’ll all be over the instant you want it to be.
Such logic led to a few recent weeks of livefeed shame in my life. I started by broadcasting a short feed of a friend who had no idea I was doing it. It was popular with a few of my Twitter followers. Then I moved on to more important topics: a livefeed of my cat clawing my hand. That netted me over 200 followers on Meerkat. I followed up the next day by posting a 3 second Periscope feed of the covered camera on my iPad. And yes, 3 seconds of gray blur got me at least one “like.”
I kept reading about how Periscope would bring me vital news of the world, but that wasn’t my experience.
In between streaming my own nuggets of awesomeness, I was watching other people’s mundane adventures. A guy promised to drink a shot of rum if 50 people joined his Periscope feed. At 30 watchers, he gave in to our texts of “do it! do it!” and took the shot. In another feed, a hipster with a wizard beard was eating a large cookie, dunking it slowly in milk, keeping the camera focused on his mouth. “I’m just eating a cookie,” he said. “That’s all I’m doing.” On Meerkat, the scene was pretty much the same. One feed gave me a group of people playing pool and drinking; another two guys talking about Star Trek. Both feeds had really weird camera angles, capturing the sides of people’s heads or too much ceiling — which makes sense, when you realize that people are propping their phones up in random places to capture what they’re doing.
The whole thing is madness, and it would be nothing but funny if it weren’t for one weird trick. It’s related to the idea that when you shut off the feed it’s over. Because all these ephemeral experience apps have spawned another set of apps like SnapSave that are designed to preserve the media that’s supposed to disappear. And there are plenty to capture your livefeeds too — with more no doubt on the way, given the current Periscope frenzy.
There are consequences, too. Last year, people in 4chan forums threatened to unleash “the Snappening,” by posting 13 GB of images and video that hackers had snarfed from a website called SnapSaved over several years. SnapSaved is a cloud service that stores those supposedly ephemeral Snapchat messages forever.
But it’s not just about third-party apps allowing people to save things that you thought were going to disappear. The companies themselves — from Snapchat to Meerkat — could be retaining your data too.
We can’t guarantee that messages will be deleted within a specific timeframe. And even after we’ve deleted message data from our servers, that same data may remain in backup for a limited period of time. We also sometimes receive requests from law enforcement requiring us by law to suspend our ordinary server-deletion practices for specific information.
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Late last week, things got meta on Periscope. I watched a guy in a New York restaurant talk about cash-transfer app Venmo. A woman offscreen kept asking, “But why do you feel that way?” Finally the guy looked straight into the camera, his eyes solemn behind owl glasses. “Are you Meerkatting me?” he asked. A giggle. “No, I’m totally not!” Another giggle. “It’s Periscope!” The guy kept staring. “Isn’t that the app that’s just like Meerkat?” he asked. Sure it is.