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Marketplace Morning Report

Live-streaming comes to the smartphone era

Kai Ryssdal and Ben Johnson Mar 26, 2015
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Twitter wants us to spend more time live-streaming our lives. Their new broadcasting app Periscope went live today.

Acquired by Twitter for $100 million in January, the app allows users to live stream video from their smart phones (iOS only, for now). Interested viewers who don’t catch the stream live can replay it later.

That follows what may prove to be the flash-in-the-pan success of Meerkatwhich does the same thing but isn’t owned by Twitter, a possibly insurmountable obstacle. Plus, Meerkat more closely resembles Snapchat: Once the stream is offline, it’s gone, not to be viewed again. 

The concept of the live stream isn’t new, says Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson. Sites like Ustream have been a mainstay of conferences, lectures and festivals for years. But this crop of new apps make it incredibly easy to turn a smartphone into a live broadcast device. One consequence is the increased ability to share moments of idleness or boredom. 

Another app, YouNow, is a streaming and chat service that boasts, among other things, a hashtag called #SleepSquad. Yes, watching people as they sleep. And there’s a tip system, too, so conceivably, paying to watch people sleep. 

“It’s curious and creepy,” Johnson says. “This is the weird, Wild West days of live streaming on your mobile phone and being able to interact with people. Which is cool — but where’s the money?”

Beyond the tips passed around YouNow, Twitter’s Periscope and Meerkat will eventually seek ways to monetize. The site to watch for clues is Twitch, the video game streaming platform that Amazon acquired for $1.1 billion in 2014. There, gamers can broadcast and watch others. Banter, consistency, level of play, and yes, even production values, boost viewership here. Twitch’s top broadcasters gain significant followings, and in some cases advertising and fans’ financial support. 

“Here’s a number: 20 million. That’s the number of viewers who watched the live stream of a video game in the first week it was released on Twitch, last year,” Johnson says, adding that YouTube is reportedly developing its own video game streaming service. 

These companies are betting that the growth in interest and viewership around live streaming will draw more advertisers as well. But while live streams can be intimate and personal, they are also unpredictable.

One potential consequence: a resurgence in swatting, where viewers contact 911 with a false gun or bomb threat, to direct SWAT teams to that player’s house. 

“For a hacker, they want to be able to play this prank on someone and have — in some cases — 55,000 people watching this guy get thrown on the ground by police,” Johnson said. 

No advertiser wants their banner ad plastered over a gamer in handcuffs, and so may stay away from potentially lucrative but chaotic streaming channels. In an interview with Twitch CEO Emmett Shear, Johnson asked whether the company plans to add additional controls.

“The key thing for us is cooperating with law enforcement,” Shear said, adding, “Secondly, you know, honestly, not talking about it too much, because I think that there’s a negative impact from giving too much attention to people who are honestly seeking attention by doing this.”

Not talking about how this content may be moderated or controlled isn’t a solution. So while there’s growth and interest in live streaming, as well as money to be made, there are potential downsides — and etiquette — to be worked out. 

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