Why Live Streaming is Live Now

Though changes in technology have allowed live streaming apps like Periscope and Meerkat to be feasible, changes in user behavior and culture have allowed them to flourish.


Over the past few weeks I sat in Manny Pacquiao’s dressing room before his fight with Floyd Mayweather, glimpsed behind the scenes of Jim Gaffigan’s new pilot, watched cats dance around a sombrero, and looked into the faces of many Turkish teens. Have I been teleporting via an operational transporter platform? Unfortunately no, but I do have the live streaming app, Periscope. Since Meerkat made a splash at SxSW and Twitter announced it had acquired Periscope, the masses have been buzzing about live streaming. However, the concept of capturing live video of yourself and sharing it with your friends and followers is hardly revolutionary. Numerous startups like Justin.tv, Socialcam, Viddy have tried and failed to capture the mainstream. The question begs to be asked — why now?

Why live streaming is possible today

The confluence of major changes in technology and social have allowed live streaming to be possible today.

Hardware — With the release of the iPhone in 2007 and the subsequent application of Moore’s Law, we have witnessed the rapid iteration of smartphones. The first generation iPhone couldn’t shoot video and was only capable of taking 2.0 megapixel photos. This wasn’t good enough to displace the features of the point-and-shoot cameras of the time. However, today point-and-shoot cameras are paper weights and 1080p HD video shot at 60 fps on a smartphone is a reality. People hate watching grainy video and now it’s possible to see the whiskers clearly on that silly cat dancing around that sombrero.

Software — Push notifications, which Apple released in 2008, allow broadcasters to let their followers know they are “live now.” Prior to push, impromptu live streams were heard like trees falling in the woods. But now with push, people can receive this notification, “George Berkeley is live: Yo, I’m in da woods. Some trees fallin’” as content is syndicated. In addition, streaming protocols like HLS and RTMP have been further developed and supported to provide lower latency video experiences that make interaction and chat with the broadcaster possible.

Wireless networks — Today’s 4G/LTE networks are a necessary building block for fast, reliable live streaming. Though most people have a hate-only relationship with their mobile carrier, investment in infrastructure and equipment allows bandwidth-heavy technologies like live streaming to be feasible.

Social networks — Building a user base is an onerous task, and Twitter’s existing social graph of people are you generally interested in hearing, provides the perfect foundation for Periscope (too bad for Meerkat).

Why live streaming is happening today

From understanding the pillars above, it is clear that recent advancements in technology have made live streaming possible when it wasn’t years ago. Nevertheless, any product manager will tell you that, “if you build it, he will come” only works for Kevin Costner and that simply having shiny new technology won’t necessarily attract and certainly will not maintain loyal, engaged users. To get to the root of why, a closer understanding of the user of live streaming, how he has changed and how social has evolved explains the true force behind the phenomenon.

The user is more comfortable behind the camera

We live in a selfie culture. As cameras have proliferated and become ubiquitous, people who were once conservative about their online identity have become more open to appearing in social feeds now that they have more advanced privacy controls and ephemeral messaging, a la Snapchat. So at this point most have just accepted the reality of being under the constant purview of a smartphone camera. Whether it’s just a photo or live streaming, the least you’re expected to do is make a funny face and wave.

Live video is the next evolution of social

When we walk through the history of social, we start with Facebook and Twitter’s status update. You answer the question of “what’s happening?” with a witty sentence or two. To make your message a bit stronger you can add a photo or a video to let your followers get a better sense of the feeling you are trying to share. With the coming of Snapchat, a more authentic, uncensored experience emerged. Snapchat’s Stories feature in particular gives one a more visceral feeling of being “present” with your friend. Live streaming video truly takes this increasingly popular inclination towards “presence” one step further, putting you next to your friend as she walks through Times Square, sharing gaudy sights and sounds. This is a profoundly new way to connect and engage with others without being physically with them. Though it’s still very early in the development of live streaming, if these new apps can deliver on this emotion and experience, then the next logical step, teleportation, won’t just be a bad Star Trek reference, but a reality that we will be ready for.