By Thomas Shambler
The world is at a tipping point, when livestreaming video officially becomes part of our online existence. Periscope is leading the charge, and in doing so might just save its parent company from mediocrity
'Experience the world through someone else's eyes'. This is the draw of Periscope, one of a new breed of livestreaming apps that lets you share pretty much anything you want, with anyone you know. Bought last year by Twitter for a reported US$100 million, in less than a year Periscope has become the dominant player in the world livestreaming.
Flick through your Twitter feed, and you're likely to hit upon someone using the app to stream their day-to-day activities; be it Ringo Starr, who uses it to showcase new material live online, Edward Norton, practicing his lesser-known funny side, or Roger Federer, streaming behind-the-scenes video of the Australian open. To say its rise from app unknown to must-have download has been swift would be an understatement.
Periscope wasn't the first to push livestreamed video. However, its timing might have been the most opportune. There have been hundreds of other attempts at live-streaming gadgets and apps, all of which have fallen by the wayside. It has taken technology this long to catch up, and whereby WhatsApp and Facebook used to be a mobile novelty, with more open Wi-Fi networks and faster 4G, video has now become a regular part of our digital lives.
The idea for Periscope started in 2013, as founder Kayvon Beykpour began planning a trip to Istanbul. Having recently quit his job at the education-tech giant Blackboard, he decided to travel the world on whim. Before he left, protests broke out in Taksim Square, directly opposite the hotel he was due to check in to. When the riot turned violent, Beykpour looked to TV and Twitter to find out the scale of the protests, and whether or not he should still fly to the country. All he found, however, were the most sensational images and the most dramatic stories. Wishing that someone would just put up a simple video of what was going on outside his hotel on the internet, he began to formulate an idea. When he returned – indeed, Beykpour did travel to Turkey that summer – he and co-founder Joe Bernstein began to build the app that would become Periscope.
The mechanics of the app are simple. Like most internet success stories, Periscope made something that traditionally was very hard to do – find a digital camera, plug it in to a wired internet connection, find a place to display your video online – and made it easy. Load up the app and it uses your phone's camera to start streaming. The result; you broadcast whatever your camera lens sees. If you are lucky enough to have followers, then the moment you start streaming they receive a notification to join the broadcast. As you watch the stream, you can leave comments for your broadcaster who in return can answer them. This makes the process of streaming interactive, and a goldmine online.
Periscope wasn't the first of its kind. Livestreaming app Meerkat just pipped it to the app store. The key difference between Periscope and its competition, however, is that Meerkat's videos disappear once you end the broadcast. Tune in, or tough luck. Periscope is different. It saves its streams once you are finished, allowing anyone to view them for up to 24-hours.
Perhaps Periscope's success can be tracked to an increased fascination with voyeurism on the web. The rise of Chatroulette, a service that allowed strangers to randomly webcam strangers, was an internet phenomenon. Millions use Twitch to watch other people play videogames, and YouTube and Ustream has invested millions in the business of livestreaming video. It was no surprise then that Twitter, once a social media marvel itself – recently, it has fallen on hard times – would want a piece of the digital pie.
Beykpour insists he never wanted to sell Periscope when he started. Not even when talks began with the team at Twitter. But the union does make a lot of sense. Twitter is all about breaking news, instant conversations and sharing information at the push of a button. Periscope does the same thing, however, without the limitations of a 140-character limit. Since the sale went through, Twitter functions have started to creep in to Periscope, but not in a hugely palpable manner. It suggests other users to follow on, and automatically sends messages to your Twitter following each time you start a broadcast.
Almost one year on, it seems the decision to snap up Periscope might have been more fortuitous than even Twitter knew at the time. Just last month, the social media giant's heads of product, media, engineering and Vine (a micro-video blogging platform that lets its users record 6-second videos) left the company. This massive and unexpected shakeup appears to be in response to its stock price plummeting, and its position in the world of online media on increasingly less-sure footing. In a world now awash with visual mediums, like Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook, Twitter's role as a simple messenger looks outdated. Rumour has it that Twitter is seriously considering raising its 140-character tweet limit to 10,000 characters. This would essentially rid the platform of the very thing that drew so many to the platform when it launched in 2006.
Regardless of what happens at Twitter, having Periscope in its portfolio is surely no bad thing. With investors calling for sweeping changes to the service, and even those at Twitter debating vast updates to keep the social media platform relevant, having Periscope in the wings may allow the micro-blogging platform to pivot in a new direction. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has pledged to "work day and night to make sure we're building the right experiences" going forward. Does that mean the microblogging service will soon announce a new direction? Chances are you'll find out on Periscope, just like everyone else.