A View from Judith Donath

Peer Pressure, Internet-Style

Apps like Periscope will create a complex new relationship between broadcaster and audience.

  • July 2, 2015

Live broadcasts have been a staple of TV since its earliest days. But with MeerkatPeriscope, and other “live-streaming” apps, we have taken another step in reducing the barrier that distance poses to our interactions. We need to be prepared for the new dynamics that more participatory audiences bring.

These applications are revolutionary because they shift the role of the audience from passive observers of distant events to active participants in them. With recorded video, the audience cannot affect what is happening on the screen. But these live broadcasts are portals to another place. What you are seeing is happening now—and you can affect the future.

With these new apps, the audience makes comments that appear in the video stream, and the broadcaster determines how those comments will affect the events unfolding onscreen.

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There are many potential applications: nature walks in extraordinary places, citizen surveillance of police authority, open and interactive classroom broadcasts, and more. You can do an interview, answering questions that your audience posts. You can seek advice, asking your audience what glasses to buy or how to arrange your furniture. You can run an interactive tour, walking, turning and stopping to peer at things as per the audience’s request.

Any of these scenarios involve trust: mostly trust that your audience is on your side. But, this being the Internet, it is inevitable that the trolls will come. Some are obvious trolls, and Meerkat and Periscope are busily revamping their interfaces, making it easy to block hostile viewers or limit the interactions to people you follow. More subtly though, there is something about the dynamics of a remote audience that seems to inspire otherwise reasonable people to cause trouble.

This was one of the lessons we learned from an experiment we conducted at the MIT Media Lab in 2001. The setup was that an actor equipped with a camera mounted on her forehead and a backpack full of electronics would do whatever the audience (the “directors,” connected via the Internet) collectively decided she should do. Directors could suggest and vote on actions; every few minutes the highest-rated one would be sent to the actor to carry out. She ended up dancing on the table and eating from other people’s plates. Suggesting something transgressive was irresistible. 

Agency is a key element distinguishing the different ways the live streaming can be used: to what degree is the person with the camera controlled by the audience? The “actor” in our experiment had little agency—the scenario required her to follow the directors’ orders.

You might think that in ordinary circumstances one would have considerable agency and be free to ignore ridiculous suggestions. But our implicit contracts with our audience complicate things. And relinquishing control may be the point. Sex is the perennial pioneering application for every new medium, and minimal agency defines the role of the submissive sex slave; it is likely that an X-rated version of our experiment is playing out in some semi-hidden corner of the Web. 

Even in scenarios where the audience’s comments can be ignored, the remote chorus changes the social dynamics. In 2013, artist Lauren McCarthy went on a series of dates with people she met online. Unbeknownst to them, she had enlisted a team of Amazon Mechanical Turk workers (people who do simple tasks assigned via an online job marketplace) to help. During each date, she would put her phone on the table, surreptitiously turn on the camera and broadcast the scene to the Turkers. They in turn would text advice to her about what to say and how to act. Some of what she said to her dates originated in her own mind, but other remarks and actions came from the Turks.

Such participatory audiences have already moved from the realm of art into mainstream society. Many teens broadcast their day and their dates to a murmuring, texting crowd of kibitzing friends—relieved they don’t live in their parents’ lonely world, where most experiences are faced alone, unbuffered by a team of virtual advisors. 

Comments and advice are not the only way to reach in and affect the world through live-streaming’s portal. Live streaming of video game play has become quite popular, with the top players attracting huge numbers of viewers. These big audiences, though, have also attracted pranks. Most notable is “swatting”: calling the police to report a serious crime, such as a hostage situation, in progress at the victim’s address. The raid, which is extremely dangerous as the teams are on hair-trigger, is broadcast live on the gaming channel, much to the trolls’ amusement. 

Meerkat and Periscope are new, still awkward and buggy; their users are still figuring out what they are good for. We are not yet at the point where it is the norm to livestream much of your life, to wonder who is directing the words and reactions of the people around you, or to be a participant in myriad distant events. But that is a world that is coming, soon, to a screen near you.

Judith Donath is a Harvard Berkman faculty Fellow and former director of the MIT Media Lab’s Sociable Media Group. Her current research focuses on how we signal identity in both mediated and face-to-face interactions, and she is working on a book about how the economics of honesty shape our world.

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