First, there was YouTube, where people could watch pre-recorded movies and video clips on their computers.
Then came Facebook, making it possible to reach out to friends and family and share pictures, status updates and links.
Then Twitter – a way to quickly share short texts and links with a wide audience.
Social media has gone from limited to wide sharing. From pre-recorded to content shared in real time. From permanent links to tweets that last just a few minutes. And the social circle of social media has gotten wider and wider. And just when you think social media has gotten about as big and addictive and all-consuming as it could possibly be – along comes a new app that changes the landscape again.
The latest, biggest thing in social media is an app called Periscope. It’s the brainchild of Kayvon Beykpour and Joe Bernstein. The two had been travelling in 2013 when riots broke out in Istanbul. They turned to Twitter for news, but were frustrated when they couldn’t get video of the events as they were happening. Since all smartphones have cameras and keyboards, they wondered why there wasn’t a service that would allow people to share live video and comment on it at the same time. Beykpour and Bernstein approached Twitter with their idea, and the company quickly bought them out for $120 million.
The genius of Periscope is that it uses your phone to broadcast live video to other people. Friends and others can “follow” you or simply find you from within the app. People can also link it to their Twitter account. Viewers can comment, ask you questions and send you likes (hearts, in this case) to let you know they enjoy what you’re sending.
Into every corner
I’ve found Periscope really easy to use. On my first test of the app, I started live-streaming a video of the Tim Horton’s lineup at Union Station in Toronto. I called it “Epic Tim Hortons Lineup at Union” and tagged the location. As soon as I started shooting, people started watching online. People from Texas and Scotland and across Canada chimed in, telling me they love Tim Hortons (or don’t), that they miss Union Station (or don’t) and sending me a flurry of little electronic hearts.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This wasn’t an exciting video stream. It could not have been more boring, in fact. I have NO idea why someone on the other side of the world would want to virtually stand in line for a coffee when I don’t even want to be there myself. But that’s social media for you. It doesn’t always make sense.
Even though Periscope has a lot of potential, there are already a few signs of trouble. For starters, people are using the app to harass other people – particularly women – using the commenting feature. Periscope has already had to deactivate the accounts of people who were using the app to stream movies from theatres. And, as the internet has taught us, where there are cameras there will always be people trying to get naked in front of them, and Periscope is no exception.
For me, the interesting thing about social media is how quickly it has expanded into even the most mundane corners of our lives. If I had told you five years ago – or even five months ago – that I could get a global audience of 100 people to stand in line with me as I ordered a Honey Cruller and a large black coffee, you would have thought I was joking.
Searching for community
I find myself asking not “What’s the next big app and how can I make $120 million of my own?” (though I gotta admit that would be nice), but rather “why?”
Why are so many of us so hungry for a connection to someone else that we’re willing to walk down a virtual sidewalk with them, or sit on a virtual train? Are our own lives so mundane that finding out other people’s lives are equally boring makes us feel better somehow? Is it that we’ve become scared to be alone with our thoughts and cut off from the constant buzz of other voices? Have we lost the ability to strike up conversations with real people around us?
I normally love new technology and new gadgets. Maybe I’m finally getting old, and maybe the app hasn’t found its purpose yet, but I find Periscope a little depressing. I’d much rather have a cup of questionably strong post-church coffee and talk to real people instead of voyeuristically watching a live-stream of some lonely soul on his way to work.
More and more, I think social media shows us that people are desperately lonely. The question is, what are Christians going to do about it?