2016 Is The Year Live Streaming Came Of Age

2016 Is The Year Live Streaming Came Of Age
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This piece was co-authored with Sachin Maini, a research fellow at Day One Insights

On July 6 of this year, Minnesota resident Philando Castile was pulled over for a broken tail light in what should have been a routine traffic stop. In the front passenger seat was his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds. As the officer approached Mr. Castile from the driver side, something went horribly awry. He was shot four times in the arms and side.

With an astonishing presence of mind, Ms. Reynolds took out her phone and began to broadcast the harrowing moments that followed via Facebook Live in a 10-minute stream, which quickly went viral. By noon the next day the video had been viewed over 3.2 million times on her page with Mr. Castile having died, the officer being charged for manslaughter, and the nation reeling in shock.

The Philando Castile shooting was not unprecedented as an event on its own. Similar incidents have happened before, without national attention. A familiar pattern tends to emerge in the aftermath, with two differing narratives on what happened relayed to an indifferent public, a grieving family caught in the inefficient machinery of the legal system, and a return to business as usual.

The intensity of the public's reaction to the shooting, on the other hand, was unprecedented. It was one of the most emotionally evocative moments for our country in a year that was already awash with emotive shootings. This incident stood out because of the way it was transmitted. Watching Mr. Castile take his final breaths (in real time) was so compelling, the raw footage so unforgettable, and Ms. Reynold's pain and terror so palpable, that the unjust death of a single citizen was transformed from a local tragedy into a national moment of reflection.

And this, in a nutshell, is the power of Facebook's new live-streaming platform: Facebook Live. Facebook Live allows users to "go live" whenever they want, easily and conveniently. They don't need anyone's permission, nor do they need special equipment to start broadcasting. All they do need is their phone and internet connection. With no technical knowledge whatsoever, users can share their surroundings in high-definition to the most relevant people in their lives.

This is a powerful combination, and Facebook is betting their future that it will revive flagging user engagement. That may prove to be a wise gambit if Facebook can bring to bear its most powerful resource: the depth of their social graph, a vast network of users that includes a huge chunk of the planet's population. But although this is a powerful advantage over other platforms, they'll face stiff competition from a crowded field.

There is nothing inherently new about live streaming technologies. What's different now is their ease of access and the recent rise of social media. Ustream and Livestream are two broadcasting platforms that have been around since 2007. They found early success by enabling American soldiers to broadcast from their laptops to their loved ones back home. Occasionally, single events would drive serious traffic for these early platforms - like the Decorah Eagles' eggs hatching in 2011 that attracted 100 million watchers - but there was no regular audience. These platforms had no mainstream relevance and certainly did not move news cycles.

Then, in January 2016, Facebook Live became accessible to Facebook's 1.5 billion users, causing Google's YouTube to follow suit with a full live-streaming integration. In other words, by mid-2016, the largest social media companies had each given users the ability to "go live" in a seamless, elegant way with a single tap.

When it debuted, the most high-profile use cases for livestreaming were in politics. A Periscope livestream of a sit-in by congressional Democrats received major attention when they were able to bypass the official communication channels. Around the same time, the drive-by shooting of Antonio Perkins, inadvertently broadcast live via Facebook, went viral amidst renewed public scrutiny of gang violence. A summer of protests and police encounters led to live stream broadcasts becoming a regular fixture of cable news, which continues to this day. Much like Twitter after the Arab Spring, live streaming came of age in the domestic turbulence of the United States in 2016.

It turns out there is a pattern to live streaming engagement: a user broadcasts something compelling, it goes viral as friends and followers share it to their extended networks, traditional media channels soon takes notice. Before long, the footage ends up in front of a global audience. This is possible because social media companies have allowed people to reach a viewing audience without having to build one - the distribution is already taken care of. When a user uploads a live video to Facebook, it automatically appears in their friends' News Feeds.

But although early engagement looks promising, whether or not live-streaming will translate into real profits remains to be seen. For Facebook and other live streaming platforms, what has made livestreaming attractive so far hasn't been the total volume of traffic to livestreaming videos so much as it has been capturing user attention over time: people aren't just watching a single stream and then not coming back, they're sticking around to see what comes next.

One of the largest advantages that the social media giants have is the network effects working in their favor. The reason that we continue to use Facebook and Twitter is that everyone we know uses Facebook and Twitter. And the more users share and engage, the more valuable the platforms become, which has a compounding effect. This can be extended to livestreaming as well.

When users tune in to the latest broadcasts, it's to watch the present unfold. It's like watching a 24-hour news channel devoted to your own little corner of the universe, peopled by a cast of characters from your immediate network of personal friends and acquaintances. That's why Facebook is walking a careful line in trying to adapt to our new ways of sharing while, at the same time, trying to encourage the creation of a new social behavior. They want "going live" to be as culturally ubiquitous as taking a selfie -- and they're willing to invest what it takes to make that happen.

This article originally appeared on Forbes - Disruption and Democracy.

Check out my upcoming book, Identified.

A high school student live streams a protest against President-elect Donald Trump inside the Massachusetts State House after a school walk out December 5, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Credit: RYAN MCBRIDE/AFP/Getty Images)

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