By Omar L. Gallaga / Austin American-Statesman
I’M struggling with a relatively new piece of technology called Periscope, an app purchased by Twitter and relaunched in late March.
Not “struggling” in the sense that I don’t know how to use it or I’m frustrated by its limitations. Quite the opposite. I’m charmed by Periscope in a way that a lot of people I know are not; I see huge potential in it, the way I did my first year on Twitter back in 2007. But I also have huge reservations about what Periscope may turn us into. Remember when we worried that Twitter might shorten people’s attention spans? What were we talking about just now?
Oh yes, Periscope. I have some thoughts. Ten of them. Writing about these things usually helps sort out mixed emotions.
1: Let’s clear up what Periscope is and what it’s not. People have been live-streaming video of themselves online for a while, using everything from Skype—best for intimate chats—to services such as Qix (R.I.P.), Twitch and Ustream. Earlier this year, an app called Meerkat got lots of attention, especially at South by Southwest Interactive, for making it dead-easy to broadcast from an iPhone.
iPhone cameras are much better now than a few years ago, mobile Internet connections are faster and more stable, and people are more comfortable sharing video online in this age of selfies. Meerkat grew quickly. Then Periscope came along shortly after with a more polished, less buggy interface. Guess which one seems to be winning the war for live-streaming iPhone owners? For now, at least, Periscope seems to be the one to watch from iPhones and iPads, on the Web or, at some point this year, from Android devices. (It is now available for Android devices.–Ed.)
- One of the things I love about Periscope is that it’s in the experimental phase when users—from celebrities to tech early adopters to artists to would-be social-media gurus—are throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks. When Vine, a short-video service also owned by Twitter, debuted in 2012, it was a mess, but it didn’t take long for clever shooters to create stop-motion dramas and comedies told six seconds at a time. Periscope feels like that right now.
- My first Periscope involved pointing a phone at one of my computer monitors at work and playing Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” on YouTube in a loop. I realized soon that anyone watching online could overhear chatter from the newsroom as audio. It suddenly felt dangerous and a little intrusive. I turned off the feed.
- One of the ways that Periscope (and to an even greater extent Meerkat) feels different from previous live-video apps is a sense of the ephemeral. Meerkat doesn’t archive streams at all; once you miss someone’s video, it’s gone. Periscope gives broadcasters the option to make replays available, but only for 24 hours. You can find a list of videos a user has created, but you can’t watch them after that, unless the Periscoper saves the video and reposts it somewhere else. (The video will be missing chat messages and hearts.)
- Let’s talk about those hearts and chat messages. Hearts are a way for Periscope viewers to say they like something. But, unlike Facebook, where you can “Like” something once, hearts can be freely given many, many times by tap-tap-tapping the phone screen while watching. The hearts, represented as different colors for different heart-givers, float to the top of the screen, then fade, like fleeting emotion. Chat messages also fade after a few seconds and a popular Periscope stream can feel like a blast of thoughts coming from all directions, punctuated by hearts.
- Other things I have done on Periscope: I tried to strap my phone to a small drone and fly it. It did not go well; the drone wasn’t powerful enough to support the weight. But the video was a huge hit, drawing thousands of viewers and hearts. I’ve painted miniature zombie figures while narrating the process (very popular), hosted a microwave-oven marshmallow Peeps jousting Olympics (a bust) and streamed interviews and events.
- A few weeks ago, Oprah Winfrey started using Periscope. I haven’t watched Oprah on TV for years, but I was mesmerized by her on Periscope as she aimed her phone backstage at Late Show With David Letterman or took charge at her magazine, asking questions of her managing editor with Gayle King always within viewing range. Oprah is great at Periscope. Without the layers of camera operators, editors and TV signal clutter, when it’s just a phone between you and Oprah, it feels like magic. Oprah magic.
- Authors are using Periscope in clever ways. Friends who have books published have used Periscope to show readers what their writing spaces look like. Actually writing anything while broadcasting via Periscope is not so exciting, but some visual artists, such as Amanda Oleander, who has about 100,000 Periscope followers and 12.5 million hearts, are becoming celebrities within the medium. Talented Periscopers, such as Oleander, are almost inventing a new language, doing what they do in front of a camera while also keeping a running dialogue with the fast-scrolling messages on screen.
- Other things I’ve seen on Periscope: a woman on a set of stairs crying after her boyfriend broke up with her. Much of the Manny Pacquiao vs. Floyd Mayweather boxing match on May 2, Periscoped dubiously (and probably illegally) from people’s living-room PPV, encumbered by party noise and shaky-camera hands. Sleepy comic Nick Kroll answering viewer questions before going to bed. People trying on the Apple watch.
- Popular formats on Periscope: “Ask me anything” chats with tech reporters, children and even sock puppets. Bored Dog walks or strolls through airports. Bad weather and spectacular sunsets. Boring news conferences and slightly less boring photoshoots with models who do their best to ignore lascivious chat requests. And, most promisingly, breaking news events such as riots in Baltimore and disaster coverage after horrific storms. Tedious video on Periscope is just tedious. But the good stuff is dangerously watchable and very interactive.
Maybe it’s all going to make us more self-conscious and less private, a new breed of always-broadcasting showoffs, who can’t ever be off-camera. But I’m also seeing incredibly compelling stuff on Periscope, video I don’t want to ignore, dismiss or underestimate.
Is Periscope the next Twitter? No, not at all, but it’s something to watch with occasional nuggets of gold inside a huge mountain of rocky terrain.