Online Audiences Need a Way to Interact with Live-Streamed Media, Business, and Political Events

Live streams are the way of the future, but right now they’re one-way, broadcast-style events that don’t allow participation. Image source: Flickr CC user NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Warren Buffett is what an oracle looks like. He doesn’t so much resemble an ancient Greek mystic as he does your own grandfather, but he still has the power to draw millions to the sound of his voice.

In the middle of 2016, the most celebrated octogenarian investor on the planet held court for seven hours of stakeholder and journalist interrogation as the centerpiece of his famed “Woodstock for Capitalists” — the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting.

This time around, the in-room guests at the usually exclusive meeting were joined online by more than a million viewers as Yahoo Finance live-streamed the event over the internet.

That’s a record online audience for any corporate event, and proof positive that we’ve reached a tipping point for live broadcasts online. It no longer takes a popstar or a playoff game to get people to live-stream media on their phones or computers. Two old guys seated at a table in Omaha talking finance and shares will do.

The only problem: not one of those million online viewers was allowed to address Warren Buffett. This was a purely voyeuristic event, a broadcast delivered in the old one-way sender-to-receiver model that has dominated public media since the early days of radio. It’s time the audience is given a voice.

Silencing the Online Audience

Buffett is hardly the first magnate to live-stream his company’s most important annual public relations event online. Since Delaware, the legal home of a large piece of corporate America, changed its laws of corporate governance at the turn of the millennium to allow online annual meetings, hundreds of companies have gone so far as to conduct virtual-only shareholder reporting.

While the list includes big names like Intel and Warner Music, none have mastered online audience participation, and few have even satisfied shareholders.

The interactive aspect of such meetings is so poor it has led shareholder groups, such as the Council of Institutional Investors, to accuse companies of using online meetings to gag investors and avoid public protest by exercising greater control over what is broadcast and who is allowed to speak.

This habit of reducing an online audience to silence in an age of unprecedented communications technologies is not confined to the business world.

Social Media Viewers, Not Participants

Content delivery, or distribution, networks are required to bring live-streamed media to millions of unique users. This means the platform has been dominated by established TV broadcasters and only the largest social media and user-content providers. Those providers have been slow to incorporate audience participation.

Sources such as Facebook Live, YouTube, Twitter, and even the more anarchic YouNow all restrict their audience to basic chat messaging as a way of responding to a live-stream. Those muted audiences still keep coming back for more, however.

Twitter’s live-stream of the Trump inauguration earned 6.8 million viewers, YouNow’s hottest broadcasters attract hundreds of thousands of followers, and red carpet live-streams for the Grammys, Oscars, and even the Game of Thrones premiere have performed well.

If fans wanted to put a live question to their favorite GoT actor, though, they had to submit it in writing via Instagram or Facebook. That’s hardly an innovative use of social media, and in an age where WebRTC can make live-streams interactive in real-time, it’s not going to appease the online crowd for long.

Interactive Broadcasting with WebRTC

WebRTC has the ability to break down the barrier between viewer and presenter during a live broadcast. WebRTC tools such as Tokbox’s Spotlight specialize in allowing an audience member to emerge from the crowd and take center stage in front of the broadcasting public.

It’s an evolution of the few-to-many broadcast; one speaker addresses a large online audience. From this remote audience an individual can directly respond to that speaker in real time. Once finished another user can rise from the remote crowd and continue the debate.

It gets around the content delivery network problem by employing a mix of peer-to-peer links and open source media processing. In so doing it can turn a static one-way live-stream into a combative town hall event.

This kind of thing is already being done at an enterprise level with the aid of expensive in-room video conferencing hardware, and at the cost of an ongoing subscription fee. WebRTC technology like Spotlight, however, can be embedded directly into any website that inhabits a participating browser, can be accessed via desktop or smartphone, and requires no user download or external equipment.

It can potentially scale up from an intimate, private audience, suitable for events such as increasingly popular online weddings, right up to something the size of the Berkshire Hathaway affair. What’s more, you don’t have to participate alone.

Attending a Live Stream within a Private Suite

It’s now possible to channel a live-stream directly into a WebRTC-based social video network app. The incoming media sits alongside the members of a live video chat group, and lets them communicate with each other while the stream plays simultaneously for everyone to see.

Increase the interactivity of that stream by implementing something like TokBox’s two-way technology, and there’s potential to let everyone within a private chat group communicate not only with each other, but with the broader viewing audience, and even the subjects of the broadcast.

It is the visual equivalent of five people sitting in a car with the radio playing, suddenly being given the chance to speak directly with the DJ, and have everyone else listening to that station hear their interaction.

This setup means a remote group of shareholders could talk amongst themselves while waiting for their chance to address an online annual meeting — of course a moderator would have to be given control of such a group’s microphone to ensure the whole affair didn’t descend into chaos.

Game of Thrones fans could gather before and after the red carpet meet-and-greet, and also get some face time with their heroes without switching apps or screens.

Virtual viewers of a political town hall meeting would be as empowered to put a question to their representatives as their in-room colleagues, and they’d be able to come to a consensus together, and speak as an organized group.

Mr. Buffett was impressed enough with last year’s online element that he’s promised to repeat the setup again in May of this year. Maybe this time he’ll acknowledge his online audience better by allowing them to speak up.