The tech echo chamber is ringing again -- this time about Periscope (and Meerkat, but that's so two weeks ago!).
Well, everybody's wrong. Or at least everybody is at the extremes -- where you have the predictable tech triumphalists and the predictable naysayers.
No, Periscope is not going to change the world. In fact, so often these days people proclaim that something is going to change everything or change the world that I think it's worth stepping back to consider what it means to invent something that changes the world.
In 1,000 or 2,000 years, when the last surviving pockets of humanity, subsistence farming on the small heavily defended patches of fertile high ground that haven't been flooded out by rising seas or parched by drought, look back on human history, there are things they might point to that changed the world -- the discovery of fossil fuels and the invention of the internal combustion engine are probably going to be high on their list. The semiconductor and the vacuum tube before it. Robots (the ones running the assembly lines that puts all those people out of work before the riots, the famines, and mass die-offs). Computers. Genetic therapy. Bacteriology. The Internet itself, yes, maybe but any individual application built to exploit it? Periscope? Twitter? Facebook? Even the graphical web browser or email server-client systems? Doubt it. Changing the world means the course of life on the planet is altered forever, not just the course of leisure time of a handful of upper middle class white kids until the next cool buzzy app comes along.
Twenty years or more into the commercialization of the consumer Internet, we've long since passed the time when any individual Internet application -- or at least any one involving messaging or the transmission of data -- is going to change the world. We're tinkering around the edges, adding new functionality, new bells and whistles, moving functionality from device to device.
But the fundamental change -- humanity's interconnection through instantaneous, global, many-to-many messaging and data sharing -- has already taken place. Whether that messaging takes the form of 140 text characters or streaming video, on a PC or a tablet or a phone, is just a difference of mode or method, not a difference of kind. The revolution is over. Until the Internet can do something other than move data and information around (say maybe when it becomes fully and ubiquitously connected to universally accessible 3D printers and drones that can actually make and do things in the physical world), we're just dicking around with new toys that do more or less the same things.
When a guy like Bob Lefsetz describes Periscope.....
Of course, you can pay for a one on one live stream on a cam site, but this isn’t about money, this is about the bleeding edge. And that’s what’s so exciting about Meerkat and Periscope, it’s all brand new.
Like I watched a sunrise in New Zealand. A cove in Australia. Someone making coffee in Amsterdam and a snowy spring in Siberia. Call me a voyeur, we’re all voyeurs, and right now regular people are letting you into their lives, just for the fun of it, and it’s strangely riveting.
They do it for the love. No one wants to be alone anymore. They want hearts and comments and interaction. They’ll perform if you show up and comment.....
I start having weird flashbacks, to Josh Harris' Pseudo, or to the breathless reaction to the first days of Twitter. But by now we all know that in the end no one is going to give a s**t about watching someone making coffee in Amsterdam, for the most part they're going to use Periscope for celebrity gossip, porn, peering into the lifestyles of the rich and famous and sharing personal details with their close personal circles, people they already know in the physical world.
Now, it doesn't mean that in the near term society won't become better or worse because of some new app, probably both -- for every Arab Spring political moment helped along by the likes of Twitter, there's the shameful acting out of celebrities like Chris Brown to suck our bandwidth. It also doesn't mean there's not money to be made or industries to be disrupted by any potential new, hot thing.
I read with interest Mic Wright's The Next Web piece "Periscope won’t change the world – but it appeals to journalists’ vanity." Clearly I agree with the first part of Wright's headline. And as to the second part, well, vanity and self-obsession maybe the defining characteristics of the social media age. (I know, I know, since Tom Wolfe dubbed the Baby Boomers the "me generation," every successive American generation has been given some next iteration of the same appellation. But there's no way around the self-absorption of the selfie era.)
But when Wright says Periscope "won't change news," I think he's completely off the mark.
Wright's contention is that for the most part social media messages, even those eyewitness messages from the scenes of newsworthy events, aren't news but are the source material for news. He's just plain wrong about that. News has always first and foremost been about reportage. Go somewhere. Witness something that others need to know about but can't be present for. Report back so that the people can know.
Professional news organizations are never going to be able to do that again in a more timely fashion then the connected crowd. The occurrence of certain kinds of newsworthy events is just too unpredictable. Professional journalists aren't always everywhere when something newsworthy happens, but someone with a smartphone is, at least in major urban areas whether it's Tahrir Square or the East Village.
In other physical areas -- away from places where relatively well-heeled tablet wielding folks congregate -- professional reportage may still be needed. And other kinds of stories -- frankly, more important stories than the story of the latest fire or natural disaster -- like the story of Iran-US nuclear talks, are never going to be able to be told by citizen journalists.
But Wright's contention that, "We need analysis and thought to be introduced before something become news. Just being present is not enough," is wrong. For many kinds of news, for news at its most traditional and fundament, being present and beaming back video is precisely enough.