The time I accidentally had a popular political live stream
In 2010 I was living in the heart of Dublin city, in a draughty apartment overlooking the river Liffey. The apartment was on the first floor, and the windows blocked both sound and weather so poorly I could hear the traffic passing by on the quays as if I were sitting in the middle of it. The building itself was right at the half way point between the relatively new Millennium bridge and the historic Ha’penny bridge, a location mysteriously unnavigable to most delivery drivers.
What it was not unnavigable to, however, were drunks stumbling out of Temple Bar every weekend, and most week nights. Several nights a week, one of Dublin’s up-and-coming would treat me to a ring of the buzzer at some unsociable hour, or maybe a blood curdling scream. Occasionally, an entire week would go by where someone didn’t urinate in my doorway.
During this time high definition web cameras had become affordable, and I decided to try and catch my fly-by-night harassers in the act. I purchased one for about a hundred quid, built a little weatherproof housing for it (this is Ireland after all) and fed the cable out through my absurdly useless, French Riviera style windows.
I found myself unreasonably moved by the changing scenery. How Dublin darkened, bustled, then became still, and slowly filled with light as the new day began.
I also found my harassers. What surprised me was the diversity of the offenders. I was largely expecting children and teenagers, but the first time I saw a normal-enough looking woman walking past at around seven in the evening, who paused at my door long enough to ring every single buzzer on the panel, then promptly moved on.
Winter 2010 was a tough one for a lot of people. Physically, it was brutally cold, the coldest in more than a century. I had to stuff up my stupid, impractical windows with black bags and cower with an electric heater through the nights.
It was also two years into the Great Recession, taxes were up, loans were unavailable, and people were losing their jobs. Being “in tech” I was pretty well insulated, but my dad is a union man, a former civil servant, and he was seeing hardship.
One weekend in late November saw the The March for a Better Way. This was a union organised demonstration that came at the peak of the “troika” bailout controversy. The march happened to pass right across the river from my apartment.
There was a sentiment at the time that RTÉ were behaving a little more like a state sponsored propaganda machine than a news organisation, due to their lack coverage of protests as well as a perceived failure to ask politicians hard questions.
I didn’t have a strong opinion on the matter — I got my news from the Internet.
What I did have was the ability to live stream and a suddenly notable location. I decided to point my camera across the quays and let my handful of followers know that they could see the march there. Twitter, as we now know Twitter does, took care of the rest.
To my surprise, a few tens of people were quickly watching the feed. Nothing much was going on, apart from a slow trickle, then a large stream of people moving down the quays, but it seemed to give people a sense of presence. I was following the comments in the live stream channel, as well as on Twitter, and it turned out it had been picked up by some Irish political tweeters and had started to spread. People expressed their gratitude, but also disappointment that there wasn’t much more to to see.
Now other than the web cam, another gadget I had picked up about a year before was the brand new iPhone 3GS. The 3GS was the first iPhone to incorporate video recording, and had support for the then-newish 3G networks.
I had an idea.
Justin.tv only had an iPhone app for viewing videos, but Ustream had a dedicated broadcasting app. I decided I would not disappoint my recently acquired loyal audience — I would become a roving reporter for them. I also had nothing better to do. I threw on my coat, announced my intentions on Twitter, and made my way down the quays.
As I fiddled with the settings, I discovered that it might actually work. The video was coming in clearly, and there didn’t seem to be any serious quality issue. As I approached the GPO, I started getting extremely paranoid about holding a €300 phone up in front of my face in a group of tens of thousands of fairly annoyed people who were hurting financially.
As a result, I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the streaming numbers, but when I finally did look, there were thousands of people watching. I was shocked. Honestly, I was humbled. This had been a sort of nerdy proof of concept, but now had seemed to acquire significance.
With renewed purpose, I pushed my way up to the front of the makeshift stage where speeches were being given, so that viewers would get to see the centre of events. People made way for me, and the general atmosphere turned out to be far from threatening. I needn’t have worried.
Eventually, either the 3G connection or a Ustream edge node gave out, and I had to abandon the stream for a bit. I did however, follow the protest up to Kildare Street, where I started broadcasting again. Unfortunately, it started to turn ugly, with some people obviously spoiling for a fight.
It had been an adrenaline rush, but now I was getting wary. I chose to back off and leave the rest to the professionals.
It seemed to me then that there was this giant, untapped potential in the combination of Twitter and live streaming. It made me excited for how news organisations might use this more purposefully to bring people closer to unfiltered reality. It feels like that never really happened, but maybe the likes of Periscope will do it this time.
What I’ll probably remember best from that day was the thank-you message I received from a woman in the United States whose mother had emigrated from Ireland decades before. She told me her mother, who was in her eighties, said she had felt like she had been there, and that it had let her feel closer to Ireland than she had done for a long time.