The Problem with Periscope

YouTuber and filmmaker Casey Neistat is a prolific user of social media. He uses YouTube, of course, as well as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and even an app of his own creation: Beme. But he does not use Periscope. Why? He quite often makes that point that life is inherently boring, and thus, livestreaming it, unedited and unfiltered, makes for tedious content.

That’s just one of many problems with Periscope, the livestreaming app Twitter bought and launched in March 2015 before the original creators and founders released the app themselves.

The launch was quite messy and felt fairly rushed

  • Another livestreaming smartphone app, Meerkat, beat them to it, making its debut at film, media, and tech convention South by Southwest 2015 just a couple of weeks earlier near the beginning of March
  • Twitter actually cut off Meerkat from its social graph just as South by Southwest started, which didn’t really give people the favourable feels
  • A few months down the line, Meerkat also beat Periscope to Android
  • Twitter’s severed ties with Meerkat only helped propel the rival app into a stronger limelight. I’d go as far to say that Meerkat actually had a brief cult/celebrity moment. The Verge summarised this well »

That’s all in the past, though. I’ve heard hundreds of people talking about Periscope since it launched, but mentions of Meerkat have been nigh-on non-existent. Periscope have won, and I use ‘won’ very loosely, this battle. Let’s skip forward to the present, and start with the most alarming issues within the Periscope community before drilling down the app’s broken core.

Paedophilia and sexually abusive comments

Remember Omegle? A webcam chat service which connects you with another random user. It quickly became a cesspool of men flashing their penises, resulting in the number of female users shrinking to a bare minimum. Periscope is the opposite, in a way: most streams are by females, and most comments are from males.

The comments are usually deeply concerning:

  • Tens or hundreds of guys incessantly commenting on the stream of one girl pressuring her to take her clothes off or expose herself
  • This pressure frequently turns into demand, with language becoming violent and threatening
  • This makes the streamer understandably nervous, tainting the quality of the stream as they get distracted by being targeted and find it impossible to have a decent conversation with genuinely interested viewers
  • Males proceed in describing how they’re masturbating while watching the female’s stream
  • Females often end streams abruptly, looking disgusted, hurt, and confused

For the past couple of weeks I’ve spent an hour each evening perusing Periscope’s global list and trying to talk to people. On two occasions, I’ve landed on streams from girls aged under 18. And on both of those occasions, a regular pattern emerged: commenters would write disgusting perverse things, someone would ask the girl their age, they’d say 15 (the first) or 16 (the second), but the demands for nudity would just keep on coming.

This is both illegal and disturbing behaviour. Periscope has a system in place for reporting this sort of behaviour though, right?

There’s no way to report this sort of behaviour

Nope.

  • You can report broadcasts, but they’re rarely concerning. In fact, I’ve only seen one penis so far. The comments are almost always abusive, though.
  • You can’t report comments. Not in your own stream or in other people’s streams. You can only block people.
  • Periscope’s own guidelines say this: “If you see a user posting abusive comments in a broadcast, please take a screenshot and email safety@periscope.tv. We will take action if we find that the user violates the Periscope Community Guidelines.” This is not good enough. To properly quell hateful comments on a livestreaming service, there needs to be a team of people constantly monitoring certain abusive keywords.

For a moment, let’s imagine we’ve skipped forward two years and Periscope has implemented a suitable framework for reporting abusive comments or built a system intelligent enough to detect abusive comments. Let’s focus on…

The actual content of streams

  • Three quarters of Periscope streams are people sat in their bedrooms talking to their front-facing camera. Watching these streams is a lot like being on the receiving end of awkward date small talk: it’s just not fun.
  • Only, it’s worse than awkward date small talk, because streams regularly buffer every 30 seconds, and there are frequently 10-second delays between comments being sent and comments appearing on the streamer’s screen. This makes communication disjointed and turns something which could perhaps be fun into a chore.
  • Sidenote: ‘Trying to reconnect…’ doesn’t feel like good copy design. Is it trying to reconnect, or is it reconnecting?
  • People driving. Very soon we’ll hear of the first fatal car crash caused by people Periscoping while behind the wheel.
  • If you’re lucky, you’ll open Periscope while someone is livestreaming an interesting event, like conferences or concerts. Obvious copyright issues aside, these streams only ever seem genuinely interesting for a few minutes. Events livestreamed from a smartphone fall into a monotonous grey area between experiencing live events for yourself in person and seeing photos/reading write-ups of events on news sites and blogs. Live broadcasts (e.g. televised sports) need a lot of work — multi-angles, replays, graphics, etc. — to be engaging.

Finding interesting content or people

When you open Periscope you’re presented with a feed of live broadcasts or archived replayable broadcasts from the people you follow. The second main screen is a global view — a list of randomly-selected streams from people around the world. More recently, Periscope introduced a map view for this worldwide feed. Let’s talk about both the list and the map view:

  • At the top of the list view, there are usually three featured streams — the only attempt Periscope makes at pushing interesting content to the forefront. These are, most of the time, news anchors giving behind-the-scenes studio tours, which is interesting at first but quickly gets repetitive and bland.
  • I haven’t the faintest of clues how the rest of the list view is selected from a technical perspective, but for all intents and purposes to the user, it’s entirely random. This would be a good thing if streams were typically engaging or interesting, but as explained above, they’re almost always not.
  • LANGUAGE. One of the options in Periscope’s Settings panel is the ability to filter the list view down to only the languages you know. In my case, this is English and German. Do I see only English and German streams? No, I don’t. I see streams in every language. French, Dutch, Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, Russian — everything. What is the point of this option? What is the point of showing me streams in languages I don’t understand? I can’t listen. Or converse. The filter doesn’t work.
  • HASHTAGS. It’s just about forgivable that the original developers didn’t implement a hashtag system to make it easier to search for content you might be interested in, but it’s the eighth deadly sin that Twitter, the pioneers of the hashtag, still haven’t developed this feature more than half a year after launching the app. Amusingly, users still include hashtags in the titles of their streams — entirely non-functional, and makes the list view look messy.
  • CATEGORIES. Nope.
  • RECOMMENDED PEOPLE. Nope.
  • When you go to the third main screen of Periscope, the place where you find new people to follow, you’re presented with a couple of Featured Users and then a long list of everyone you follow on Twitter who has Periscope. Not people you follow on Twitter who actively use it — just people who have accounts. In alphabetical order.
  • This screen doesn’t appear to be intelligent or tailored in any way. The Featured Users seem entirely random — I was recommended two Food Network accounts, and I don’t follow either on Twitter. Nor do I follow any foodies/chefs/restaurant brands on Periscope.
  • People you follow on Twitter who actively use Periscope aren’t given priority over everyone else. As said, it’s just alphabetical.
  • As for the map view, it’s not clear how the pins shown are selected. Instead of being able to zoom in on a place you’re interested in and see the streams from that location, you’re presented with a random array of dots across the world. Opening a live stream of a random place would actually be quite a nice idea if the livestreams were interesting, but alas, you end up staring at a bored teenager lying in bed 90% of the time.

It’s pretty impossible to purposefully find interesting content on Periscope. It’s like the lottery, but instead of hoping to win loads of money, you search in vain of some useful or intriguing content to watch.

Hearts

Comments are how watchers interact with streamers, so they have to appear somewhere. Annoyingly, they appear over the bottom third of the livestream, getting in the way of what you’re trying to watch. That’s okay, though, because where else are you going to put them?

Hearts aren’t necessary at all, though. They bounce and flow up the right edge of the screen, cutting out more of the livestream you’re trying to watch, and they don’t contribute to how the app is used. You can’t see a list of streams you’ve hearted, and you can’t see who has hearted your streams. Hearts just accumulate into an overall number which sits on people’s profiles.

If it’s a way for Periscope to figure out which content people are enjoying so that they can push certain livestreams to the forefront, fair enough. But that’s still a very one-dimensional way to measure interest and choose content to show users when they land in the app.

In summary

Periscope has a long way to go. Given that Jack Dorsey has just taken up the helm at Twitter and has already proven ruthless in the staff layoffs he’s actioned, hopefully for the benefit and interest of the ailing social network, it will be very interesting to see how he approaches Periscope, which, from the outside, looks much more like a burden than a blessing.

The team behind the app first need to address the legal issues Periscope presents: bullying, sexual abuse, paedophilia, and copyright. Then they need to throw lots of weight behind making it easier to find good content.

They also need to work with content creators from other platforms to give them an incentive to use Periscope. At the moment there’s no real clear reason for YouTubers, brands, businesses, et al to livestream through the app. Their audience isn’t there. Celebrities I’ve seen venture into Periscope territory have used the app once and then given up, never to return.

And with the first rumblings of Facebook’s own integrated livestreaming platform making the headlines, the clock is ticking if Periscope want to be the app where the revolution is livestreamed instead of the ultimate problematic fave.

This post originally appeared on There’s An App For That.

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