Living on a Stream?

For Live Web this week we were asked to read “Living on a Stream: The Rise of Real-Time Video” by Steven Levy, who argues that by 2022, more than half of all video will be watched live, and take a side.

I’m still unsure which side I fall on. I have no doubt that we will have the technology in place, in fact we already do. I think the real question is one of a culture shift.

Since 2012, the year the article was written, live video streaming apps Periscope and Meerkat have become very popular, at least in journalism circles. FaceTime and Google Hangouts have joined Skype in making video calling ubiquitous.

At the same time, with the help of services like Netflix, pre-recorded online video has exploded. People now have the ability to binge-watch entire seasons of TV shows. They can—and do!—watch hours upon hours of uninterrupted TV online. There’s also been a huge wave of online teaching tools, which have become more and more popular. And don’t forget the new wave of virtual reality content, which threatens to trap people inside headsets for days in upcoming years.

If I look at my own habits as a case study, I see an argument in favor of the author. Thinking back to 2013, when I was getting Blue Chalk off the ground, there’s almost no question that I watched more live video than prerecorded. Working with a team often telecommuting, I likely spent several hours a day watching live video. And I’ve never been one to watch a lot of TV or movies, so I likely watched just a few hours of pre-recorded content per month. There were of course other online videos that I watched, but those could easily be balanced by my Skype and FaceTime calls with my family.

But, as I’ve said, I’ve never been a big TV watcher, so I think that I’m a bad data point.

Nonetheless, living in New York, where telecommuting continues to popularize, and working a white collar job, it’s easy to see the numbers shifting in Levy’s favor. Also, working in the journalism and documentary space, where Periscope and Meerkat are so important, it’s easy to see the trend going toward live video.

But, many people in the US don’t work in situations where telecommuting is possible, and globally, many people are still connecting to the internet on slow and limited connections. For these people, there would need to be a shift in their viewing priorities. The question is really, what do you decide to stream when you are off the clock? Or, what content do you use your precious megabytes to watch?

My guess is people will continue to choose pre-recorded content. People still want to be entertained. And, although live video can be entertaining, nothing beats binge-watching the newest season of Game of Thrones, or the killer effects in the latest Jurassic Park, or the cat video that has 1 billion views, or the adorable video your sister posted on Facebook of your niece learning to walk. Of course, these last two could be watched live, but most of today’s workers still aren’t working on computers all day and don’t necessarily have flexible work schedules. So, their viewing time will continue to be restricted to points throughout the day when they can catch “reruns.”

In the end, it looks like I’m betting against Levy. I believe that, although we are there technologically, we won’t be there culturally in 2022.

I will say, though, that it’s amazing to see what a shift we’ve seen since 2012, and, I’m also not taking into account the viewing habits of today’s teenagers and young 20-somethings who have wildly different viewing habits than me. So, although I’m betting against Levy, I’m prepared to be proven wrong!

Photo: Screenshot from Periscope “The madness on the roof of a bus in Nepal” by Derek Cowan.