None of that has changed. Except now, with apps like Periscope and Meerkat, both of which launched in March, you can do much the same thing with live video from your smartphone. It’s like video chatting on Skype, except that you’re broadcasting one-way to anyone who feels like tuning in. And those viewers can write questions and comments that appear on the screen in real-time. If Twitter gave everyone a megaphone, these apps give you a camera crew.
We’re also seeing a similar idea with business profile Snapchat. Yes, that Snapchat—the app once notorious for sexting because it lets users send self-destructing photos and videos. A feature called Stories assembles the snippets that you’ve taken over the past 24 hours to create a montage of your day. It can be an artful undertaking. This means that even you, a human over the age of 25, can join Snapchat now without feeling like a chaperone at a One Direction concert.
One big difference between these apps and Instagram and Facebook is that, by default, everything you post disappears. Periscope and Meerkat broadcasts are intended to be live events; each element of a Snapchat Story expires after 24 hours. Although you can set the apps to save your videos (and, on Periscope, have them viewable for 24 hours), that’s not the point.
I’m too old for this. Can’t I just ignore it all?
I understand your skepticism. The friends I coerced to join these networks over the past few weeks so I could research this article had an equally allergic reaction. Sure, you can dismiss these social networks as yet another sign that we’re all turning into narcissists, but there’s something about the immediacy of these broadcasts that makes them feel more like real life than the shots you carefully curate for Facebook. You might not feel comfortable taking a selfie that’ll live forever on your Instagram feed, but you may feel differently about turning the camera toward yourself with these apps, simply because whatever you share disappears.
So, yes, you could ignore them. But for every banal “fridge cast” on Persicope (people giving you a video tour of their fridge) or its cousin the “sleep cast” (as boring as it sounds), there’s someone giving you a tour of the Louvre or a celebrity engaging with fans in an authentic way. For every incomprehensible Dadaist Snapchat Story that only a teenager could interpret, there is another that makes an ordinary day seem significant. And using Snapchat as a communication tool turns ordinarily mundane messages into something more charming, direct and personal. There are enough cool and beautiful things on these networks that it’s worth tearing yourself away from Crossy Road for a few minutes to check it out.
OK, I’m intrigued. How do I start?
Let’s begin with Snapchat simply because, with over 100 million users, it’s the most established of the three. Warning: It will be weird at first. You know how Abercrombie & Fitch used to play painfully loud music to create a club-like atmosphere that only young people could endure? Snapchat’s inscrutable user interface is the equivalent of that. It helps keep out the “olds.”
@tomgreenlive | If there’s only one genre that is reborn (or lives on) in Periscope, let it be Tom Green’s brand of guerrilla, man-on-the-street comedy.
@penguinsix + @euromaestro | Periscope was created to be a “teleportation device.” The beautiful walking tours from @euromaestro (Paris) and @penguinsix really do make the world feel like a smaller place.
@cmdr_hadfield | The astronaut who became famous for sending viral videos from space holds very informative talks and Q&As about all things intergalactic.
When you first launch it, the app asks to search your contacts for other Snapchat users. Allow it to, but be prepared to come face to face with mortality. The only people it discovered among my contacts were my baby sitters. I mean, I’m in my 30s, come on. (You kids on the beanbag chairs:
That is not old. Wipes tears.) To get followers on Snapchat, you can invite your contacts to join directly from the app, but I found making appeals to friends over other social networks and email as well as in-person to be most effective. While you can search for people easily on Periscope, you need to know a person’s exact username to find them on Snapchat or Meerkat. It’s complicated, but this “unlisted number” approach is good for controlling who can find you.
Before you give up and return to the social-network retirement community that is Facebook, head to “Our Stories” on Snapchat (swipe left and look under the “Live” section). This stream of user-submitted “Snaps” from various locations and events is the quickest way to immerse yourself in the visual style of Snapchat. You’ll find images annotated with typed text and hand scribbled notes, shaky video seemingly shot from the hip and lots of people talking directly to the camera.
If Instagram is about saving images for digital posterity, Snapchat Stories are for the real moments that happen in between. In a way, it’s social media’s cinéma vérité. Or, at the very least, a place where you can string together a sequence of images and videos like a true auteur—with the option to add lots of emojis.
Snapchat lets you string together images and videos like a true auteur—with the option to add emojis.
Periscope and Meerkat are a bit different. They’re excellent tools for citizen journalists and news organizations. (Pericope’s potential became evident during the recent Baltimore riots, where it offered multiple windows on the event as it unfolded.) I’ve found ask-me-anything sessions with personalities like the Canadian astronaut Chris
Hadfield, entrepreneur Chris Sacca and filmmaker Brian Koppelman are pretty enriching. And comedian Tom Green, doing the brand of his guerrilla stand-up, has made by far the most entertaining use of the medium. So if you’re in the media or a celebrity wanting to engage with your audience, it’s awesome. If you’re an average person, figuring out what to do with these apps is admittedly harder. This brings us to…
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So what should I, an ordinary grown-up, do to start sharing?
Wait for a vacation. Travel photos and videos are where Snapchat Stories shine. Think of the medium as a visual notebook: Capture a short video here, some snapshots there, and the app automatically strings them together for you. Friends don’t get alerts when you update your story, but you can send them a Snap to let them know to tune in.
The thing to remember: You don’t have to aim for documentary-like perfection. Save that for your digital camera. And even though it might feel as wrong as the first time you used an emoji, don’t be shy about annotating your footage with text or recording a voice-over. When you’re browsing through your story at your hotel at the end of the day, it will all make sense. And if it doesn’t, tomorrow’s another day. That’s the beauty of it.
Sharing a scenic view is the easiest thing to do for your first stream. If you are uncomfortable with the public nature of social media, these services might make you even more squeamish. By default your broadcasts can be viewed by anyone, but on Periscope, you can set your broadcasts to be viewable only by those you approve. Both Periscope and Meerkat notify your followers when you start broadcasting.
Personally, though, after a few weeks of viewing strangers’ broadcasts, I felt comfortable sharing scenes of prettier streets in my neighborhood and views around Brooklyn. While the Internet can be a cesspool of meanness, my experiments with live broadcasting have been positive. Unless I’m misreading the “Thanks for sharing the view” comments I got, people seemed genuinely appreciative of my taking the time to broadcast. Seeing your screen fill up with a stream of hearts floating upward—the digital equivalent of applause from your audience—makes you want to keep broadcasting.
And that’s the thing. Because of the immediacy, ephemerality and intimacy of these videos, sharing them makes the world feel smaller. They can bring you closer to strangers, friends, and relatives alike. For friends and family whom I don’t get to see every day, a Periscope video or a Snapchat Story filled with random moments is more telling than a Facebook post or a tweet. I almost would rather see the more mundane things they’re up to; it’s closer to actually see them every day.
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