Everyone on Periscope Is Livestreaming Loneliness
If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Self-isolating due to the growing concerns about the current Covid-19 outbreak has led some to pick up a new hobby, try their most ambitious baking project, or catch up on their watch lists. But the mix of free time and internet access has led me down the rabbit hole of livestreaming, quasi-connections, and our collective loneliness.
It started as I was lazily browsing the app store for anything that might keep my attention for more than 10 seconds. I went through apps I used to have downloaded on my phone and saw one that was so buried in my memory that I mistook it for a game and decided to try it out again. However the app wasn’t a mobile game, it was Periscope, a live video streaming service that launched in 2015. The concept was simple yet revolutionary — Periscope gives users the opportunity to broadcast whatever they’re doing, wherever they are. Even though the concept of “going live” seems commonplace now, Periscope (and the others that came before it) were ahead of the curve in envisioning what live broadcasts can do for social media (live stories for Instagram and Facebook weren’t completely rolled out until late 2016).
But for some reason, Periscope or even parent company Twitter aren’t top of mind when it comes to live broadcasts. While livestreaming was becoming more popular on other platforms such as Twitch, YouNow, and Instagram, Periscope faded out of my consciousness. However Periscope is not dead, and for a small cohort of people, it’s more than a simple platform. It’s the last campfire in the night.
It is unbelievably difficult not to get sucked into some of these livestreams. I’ll find myself cycling through my typical repertoire of apps at warp speed and then all of a sudden, I’m watching a trucker racing from Indiana to Ohio as he sings country classics for an hour and a half. While a good number of streams are Little League baseball games and truckers on long voyages, it doesn’t take long to discover that Periscope is a cornucopia of eccentric characters.
I found myself getting caught up in the lives of people all around the world. The first person I watched was a young woman in British Columbia whose 3 a.m. flirtation with a man from Brooklyn was cut short when she saw someone in a mysterious mask approaching her car and she had to run inside (she went live again the next day to explain that she got inside before anything happened). There were four people in Lawrence, Indiana, having a refreshingly frank conversation about how men and women should treat each other romantically, complete with hearty laughs and challenging questions. I became obsessed with a rapper from Islington in the United Kingdom named BDawg who would just prop up his phone and freestyle for hours, only stopping to congratulate himself on how well he was doing. If you pick any livestream at random you have about a 40% chance that you’ll get a conspiracy theorist or a preacher, two groups that have more in common in terms of messaging and delivery than you would think.
In Philadelphia, a Pennsylvania man in his fifties named Johnny set up his piano and gave a free concert, and as he sang, he lamented “I want someone to dance with me so bad.” At 2 p.m. on a Tuesday I watched in shock as a man in Murray, Utah, gulped down bottle after bottle of Irish whiskey without saying a word. I decided to leave after the third bottle, at which point I’d only been watching for 20 minutes. That same day I tuned in to watch a man in Inglewood, California, who was painstakingly listing off all of the things that he should have bought instead of drugs, including clothes, his car note, and a bagel. After his list, he looked at the camera, read my username, and asked me what my life story was. I was completely startled. I had forgotten that he could see I was watching.
People weren’t streaming just to stream, they were streaming to connect.
I tried to be a passive observer as much as I could, but it was nearly impossible. There were almost never more than five people watching any given livestream, and the majority of the time it was just me and the streamer. Usually, when I consume content it’s a one-way transfer of energy, just me taking in something that was meant for anyone to see. But with Periscope, there is no hiding in the crowd because there is no crowd. It operates more like a video chat room where participation by all parties is the norm. I was acknowledged, greeted, and beckoned constantly.
“Where are you from?”
“What are you doing up so late?”
“Do you like this beat?”
“Talk to me.”
“Have you been saved by Jesus Christ, our Lord?”
“They put soy in our food to make men weaker, you do know that right?”
“I need help turning my life around before it’s too late.”
“Talk to me, please.”
I am a seasoned social media user but this outreach, this call for connection is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. If I like a YouTube video, or retweet a meme, or react to a status, the author never responds in kind. I know that someone can see when I’ve viewed their Instagram story, but not in real time. And even if someone follows me or responds to a tweet, it is so easy to just ignore and move along, but that wasn’t the case with Periscope. When I was the only person watching a stream and I tried to leave, I became overcome with this heavy guilt that sat in the pit of my stomach. Most people who were streaming always had their eyes fixed on the chat box and were always monitoring who was in the stream with them. People weren’t streaming just to stream, they were streaming to connect. Crowdsourcing advice for their personal life, sharing their religious testimony, trying to find love, easing the pain of their loneliness. I felt so guilty leaving them because, well that’s precisely what it felt like, leaving them. Slamming the door in someone’s face, being the last patron to leave the theater during the show, banishing them back to the void. Back to the loneliness.
Loneliness is universal. Loneliness is overwhelming. Loneliness is lethal. Even when we’re not facing down a global pandemic, only around half of Americans feel they have meaningful, daily, in-person social interactions — and that includes interacting with family. Social media was supposed to be the antidote to loneliness—offering the promise of connection with anyone at all hours of the day. However, it was found that the more time one spends on social media the more one experiences perceived social isolation. This feeling of being isolated and lonely (whether someone is physically alone or not) can lead to depression, obesity, and is even associated with increased mortality.
It’s clear that Covid-19 isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and that even after it leaves, much of society will function differently. Schools are pioneering new ways to educate online, countries are reconceptualizing what “working from home” means for profit margins and productivity, it is even redefining what a party can be. With more innovations around the online experience to come, it is a very real possibility that some aspects of life won’t shift back to the physical realm and will remain online. But what does that mean for the future of social interaction or the life of the lonely?
Stephanie Cacioppo, PhD, who has spent most of her life studying social neuroscience with a focus on how social isolation affects the brain, told the New York Times, “Loneliness, which compels us to bond with others, gives us what we call humanity.”
In truth, it wasn’t just quarantine boredom that led me to dust off the cobwebs of Periscope, it was my own loneliness. Loneliness due to moving across the country, starting a new graduate program, and simply the fact that I’m growing into adulthood. It was this loneliness that caused me to spend hours engrossing myself in someone else’s life, giving any advice I could, and just being there, to hear any sound that anyone might make.