Phones can make us jerks. They let us ignore friends, cancel plans last-minute, and annoy those around us in public. But this month, we got a whole new way to abuse our mobile devices. Unless we can manage how we interrupt each other, it could ruin one of the most promising modern communication mediums: live streaming.
“Josh Constine is live: I’m bored so watch me”
“LIVE – Josh Constine is desperate for attention”
“Josh Constine is live: Vague, click-bait description”
“Live – Josh Constine is actually doing something interesting”
“Josh Constine is live: nope, back to distracting you for no reason”
This is basically how notifications from live-streaming apps Periscope and Meerkat work. Occasionally urgent and compelling, frequently noisy. Suddenly, anyone can make all their friends’ pockets buzz whenever they feel like it.
That’s a huge a responsibility we’re not necessarily ready for.
Until now, push notifications weren’t usually a broadcast. You might alert someone by sending them a message, liking something they posted, tagging them, or giving them the nod on Tinder. With a few exceptions like Secret and Swipe that haven’t really caught on, you had to individually trigger each push notification sent to someone.
Yet because live streams only happen in real-time for a short time, Meerkat and Periscope have convinced us that we need to get an alert every time a friend opens a window to their world.
Sometimes these intrusions can lead us to serendipitous shared moments. An unoccupied few minutes sees you transported to the party, the front row, the intimate discussion, or the beautiful scene. But they can also work the other way around. Your celebration, concert, heart-to-heart, or blissful experience can be interrupted by an invite to commiserate with someone’s spare time.
Right now we’re still in our honeymoon period with mobile live streaming. But if we don’t learn how to use them responsibly, people will get so pushed off that they mute the notifications entirely.
The problem is the incentives are aligned all wrong. Live-streaming apps want content and engagement, so they’re built to make starting a stream as quick and frictionless as possible. Live-streaming apps are not designed to make you take a deep breath and consider whether anyone gives a shit about what you’re going to broadcast.
Humans want attention, and the immediacy of live streaming is both seductive and addictive. Knowing you can instantly assemble a doting audience can make some people drunk with power. Everyone wants to be a thinkfluencer, a commentator, an eyewitness. If only a few people tune in, so what? You were just trying to show them something. No harm done, right?
Each flippant, low-quality broadcast exhausts and detracts from the network and the platform. They make people less likely to open live streams and more likely to turn off notifications for everyone. That effectively severs the connection between the user and app — often a death sentence for engagement.
Unfortunately, ignoring or muting alerts are both much easier than managing your live-stream social graph so you only follow Periscopers or Meerkatters with a high signal to noise ratio. As with any unfiltered feed or channel, it’s easy for loudmouths to drown out those you care about. Yet the platforms always offer better ways to discover new people to follow than to figure out who you should unfollow.
And since both Periscope and formerly Meerkat were built to piggyback off the interest graph of Twitter, where you don’t get push notifications whenever people post, you may be following the wrong people and way more people than you should.
Some users have already been pushed to the brink of insanity and silenced Periscope or Meerkat. And if these developers don’t act to educate people when to stream and offer more granular ways to get notifications, legions more will opt out.
At the very least, Periscope and Meerkat should offer a little guidance as to when people should stream. Encouraging people to wait until they have some special to show or important to say, rather than just whenever they have the free time, could go a long way to filtering out broadcast pollution.
We also need smarter ways to control what triggers a notification. Some especially curious viewers with smaller graphs might be okay with an alert every time a friend streams. Others might prefer only getting a push from a personal invitation to watch. Perhaps the apps could surface the best content from friends by only sending alerts when a stream hits some threshold ratio of viewers to hearts/favorites/re-shares. Or maybe I find my friends insufferably lame and only want a push when there’s a big, zeitgeisty trending stream.
Ultimately, it will fall to our own sense of courtesy. We have to learn that the “Broadcast” button carries much more weight than most on our phones. Wearables like the Apple Watch might make it faster to check and dismiss notifications, but the first step is not to send dumb ones in the first place.
Live streaming holds immense potential for knowledge exchange, shared experience, and empathy…as long as we know when to keep our spigots closed.