Is Periscope the Next Big Tool For Citizen Journalism?

In early March, Twitter announced its acquisition of Periscope, a live-streaming video app for mobile phones. On March 26, the same day Periscope debuted in the iOS App Store, an explosion rocked Manhattan’s East Village, causing two apartment buildings to collapse and igniting a fire that spread to surrounding buildings. As the fire raged, several bystanders pulled out their phones and began streaming footage of the blaze to Periscope. Before members of the news media arrived, before anyone even really understood what was happening, the streams were viral.

“This is the promise of the 21st century,” says Jeff Sharon, a Course Director in Full Sail’s New Media Journalism master’s program. “It used to be that if you wanted to go live from anywhere in the world you needed a satellite live truck. That’s a million-dollar piece of equipment. Now, I can do essentially the same thing on my smartphone. It’s the ultimate promise of live distribution fulfilled.”

Live-streaming services have been around in one form or another for more than a decade, but Periscope streamlines the concept with a simple and intuitive UI. Users can easily integrate streams into their Twitter feeds, or choose to stream only to followers within the app itself. Users are also given the option to archive broadcasts for up to 24 hours. Perhaps the most alluring aspect of the app is its inherent mobility. Because it’s designed to function on the iPhone (an Android version is in the works), users can stream from anywhere in the world.

In the case of the East Village fire, getting to watch the incident unfold from multiple perspectives provided Periscope users with a more complete view of what was happening. Rather than being limited by the single lens of a news camera, viewers were able to hop from stream to stream, taking in the bigger picture.

“We’re so often stuck with a video, which takes time to upload and might not provide much context from a single angle. Now we can pull up multiple feeds and get a better sense of context in the streaming of a breaking story,” says Jeff.

Certainly, we live in an age where user generated content is recognized by traditional news outlets as a viable asset. It could be said that Periscope is merely cutting out the middle man. The likelihood of a live-streaming app rendering news networks obsolete, however,  is slim. When a breaking news story happens, people will still turn to professional journalists for official facts and statements.

“Most of the time, established news organizations are not going to run with a big story until they confirm it with somebody in the know,” says Jeff.

This is a good thing, since it gives the story time to fully develop and prevents the spread of misinformation. The flip side is that we live in a culture shaped by immediacy, where lack of up-to-the-minute information can be frustrating to viewers. As a result, many people turn to social media for supplemental information during breaking news stories. This can also be problematic and unreliable, especially when you consider that many forms of social media aren’t exclusively visual, and it’s difficult to trust everything you read on the internet. To that end, Periscope might help people get at the truth that lies somewhere between other forms of user generated content and what the networks are (and aren’t) allowed to say.

Despite this potential, not every person is using Periscope to live-stream breaking news. A popular meme has commenters clamoring for a peek inside users’ refrigerators. On a more serious note, HBO issued takedown notices to a handful of people who used the service to stream Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones.

“I think every platform eventually reaches a level of maturity, in terms of both the content and the people who are receiving the content,” says Jeff. “At this point, the technology is so new that we don’t know what the issues are. And it’s going to take a lot of debate, a lot of wrangling, and maybe a few legal cases to figure it out.”

As with any new technology, the user base will be essential in defining Periscope’s place in the market. Visual platforms like Vine, Instagram, and Pinterest have each suffered growing pains on the way to becoming the Next Big Thing. Periscope’s initial market seems to be more niche than most, but the fact that it occupies a unique spot in the mobile realm is key. That it’s already handily beating competitors is also encouraging. A few weeks before Twitter announced it had acquired the platform, a similar app, Meerkat, was released to much acclaim. Yet within 24 hours of its release, Periscope surpassed Meerkat’s popularity by breaking into the App Store’s top-30 most downloaded apps. Meerkat peaked at 140.

As live video streaming moves into the future, one thing is clear. The ability to turn one’s personal feed into a broadcast channel is a powerful tool for citizen and professional journalists alike.

“I’m excited to see what the news industry does with it,” says Jeff. “And we will figure it out because the technology is there, and once you have it you can’t go back. As a reporter, I can always go live, but the advantage of Periscope is that it’s immediate and there aren’t as many barriers for me to get to the viewer.”