The Future of Online Video Is Awesomely Boring
When the streaming apps Periscope and Meerkat went live earlier this year, a strange trend emerged. People started broadcasting the contents of their fridges.
Yes, their fridges. They’d stand in their kitchen and tour through their milk and odd leftovers. And when they weren’t peeking inside their fridge, their viewers would demand they do so, using hashtags like #showusyourfridge. (Even NASA astronaut Chris Hadfield felt the pressure during a livestream, when people in his audience typed, “Tell us about space fridges!”)
Whenever a new tool comes along, high tech pundits write hyperoxygenated riffs on What It All Means. They’re fascinated by high-stakes money questions. So the questions about livestreaming were mostly about fame and profit. Will people use it to create new forms of celebrity stardom? Will they upend news-gathering or political campaigning? Will they pirate movies in real time?
Nope. They’ll use livestreaming in the same way every new technology is used—to do things that nobody expects. Things like #showusyourfridge.
The real significance of a new medium isn’t in how already-famous people use it or how businesses use it. It’s in the mundane uses. You’d think we’d have learned this lesson by now. When a new form of communication suddenly becomes cheap and easy, people don’t merely copy the stuff on TV and in Hollywood. They do new things. Weird things too, which violate previous ideas about aesthetics and utility.
For most of the 20th century, shooting and distributing video was so expensive that people used it mainly for profitable, high-stakes purposes: TV, movies, instructional video. When digital cameras and YouTube made it cheap, people began shooting things that previously would have seemed wasteful or silly: reaction shots, unboxing videos, extended cuts of puppies sleeping. The future of online video was never The Sopranos. It was Warhol’s Empire, eight hours of the Empire State Building.
Sure, livestreaming will create hit shows and celebrities that resemble those in traditional broadcasting. It already has. Twitch.tv, a site where you can broadcast yourself playing videogames live, has 1.5 million broadcasters, many of whom have audiences so big that they get sponsors and do it for a living.
But the other 99 percent—the long tail of users—are streaming to a tiny handful of people (a median of two, according to one study). Those tiny groups aren’t an economic powerhouse. They aren’t celebrities. They’re something more consequential: a cultural shift. They’re creating a new form of socializing, using Twitch to hang out and shoot the breeze, across state lines or even time zones, with videogames as the glue. Even the folks who made all this software didn’t see it coming. “It’s an emergent behavior,” Twitch VP of marketing Matthew DiPietro says.
You can see similarly unexpected small-group behavior on Meerkat. “We had one woman teaching a workout, and as people typed questions she’d alter her workout,” Meerkat community director Ryan Cooley says. “The people watching the show are basically cocreating it.” Houston programmer Adam Wulf streamed himself for two weeks while coding an iPad game. On average, only 10 people were watching at any given time. But, Wulf says, knowing they were there improved his work. While “talking aloud” through a problem, he’d hit on a cool new solution, and the pressure to perform made him more decisive. “People were watching, so I wanted to get it done—I got better at cutting out features and paring it down,” he says.
These are audiences so small that they redefine niche. It’s not something of interest to a small number of people—it’s an uncountable number of somethings of interest to an infinite number of people, mundane in the aggregate but individually compelling. Not one fridge—but all of them.
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