I Will Never Be Alone Again: Periscope and the End of Creative Solitude
Periscope brings you the world as a sandbox, filmed through an army of camera phones. Being alone will never be the same, again.
Looking back from the end of 2015 I can see more clearly the moment when the year went off the rails. At the end of January ,hundreds of "periscopers" representing their millions of viewers gathered in San Francisco for the second "Periscope Community Summit", a combination conference, marketing seminar, infomercial for and about the streaming video app that was the darling of 2015.
It's also a reminder of precisely the moment when the year went off the rails for me. It was during the Summer premier of Jurassic World as a number of fans and compulsive autograph-seekers used the new twitter-branded video streaming app Periscope to guerrilla-broadcast live from around the red carpet in Los Angeles. They screamed the names of various actors, hoping to get a glance from them. They begged for posters to be signed. They got pushed aside by security.
As an academic, it's the kind of spectacle I’m supposed to be professionally disdainful of. But that night I watched this for hours. My wife, who was reading in bed next to me, eventually turned off her light and I was alone with my iPad and my new addiction. The scary moment came when she prodded me, “Are you going to sleep any time soon?” “Shhhh. I can’t yet. Chris Pratt hasn’t shown up.” When I heard those words come out of my mouth and hang in the air above my marital bed, I knew I was in trouble.
Every summer I find something to distract me from the work I’m supposed to be preparing for the rest of the year. The less said about summer 2014’s “track down every movie featuring someone from Barney Miller” the better (and yes, that was Jack Soo in The Green Berets). But this year I was not alone. In fact I’m now never alone.
It seems to be a recurring story about instant addiction, some version of “I saw [insert your favorite indie singer/songwriter here] was live on something called Periscope, so I downloaded it and now I can’t remember having had a life, a career, or a family. The only thing that’s real is the map, man. The only thing that’s real is the map. The world map, which provides a real-time view of live streams everywhere from New York to Kazakhstan, is one of the best features of Periscope. Those little red dots sprinkled across the globe are the tech equivalent of the warm smell of colitas. Once you get a whiff you know you’re entering a place you’re never going to want to leave.
The app itself is fantastic. It brings you the world filmed through an army of camera phones. It’s a simple idea that we’ve been waiting for since the social media era began, but which for one reason or another never worked -- until now. Whether it was the clunky quality of streaming video in the past, the lack of a universal platform to connect people, or the lack of mobility with most webcams, the dream of live-all-the-time “this-is-my-life” broadcasting by everyone for everyone has remained a problem waiting to be solved.
Streaming video has come a long way, Apple and Samsung solved the portability issue, and now having purchased Periscope, Twitter has solved the platform and connection issue. Finally all the world is, well, not a stage exactly, but a soundstage. We don’t need E!, Bravo, or a bonded and licensed Kardashian to watch the weirdness of the world pass by as a combination reality-show/sandbox-game.
It’s a cliché by now to lament the creep of our little glowing phone buddies into what lonely thoughtful creative time we used to have. Being alone isn’t what it used to be and finding time to think and imagine is getting harder. It used to be, we’re told, that an idea was something spied from afar, a tiny shape in a vast field of quiet and emptiness and that it would bolt from the scene like a rabbit if approached too quickly. A long slow walk was the best way to capture it. Empty space and empty time were essential prerequisites to creativity. Indeed, we’ve all heard how Beethoven did his composing on long, quiet strolls through the woods, or that Kokoschka painted “The Tempest” while locked in an empty room of walls painted black.
The last point in my life when I spent any time silently walking and thinking was in graduate school when I had no car. I had some pretty solid ideas during those walks. I remember thinking. It was a useful skill. The closest many of us today come to having time and space to stare into the emptiness of knowing-not-but-wondering is “train time” or “subway time”. But in such places you have be on your guard to the proximity of so many strangers and so much potential avian flu phlegm that it takes a kind of psychic iron to tune it all out.
The last year I spent commuting by train was also the first year I had a smart phone and quickly my internal conversation, once populated by my conjured avatars of Schubert and Wordsworth, ended up going something like this: “Okay, so you wandered lonely as a… hold on… Trump said he was a what?… sorry… right you were wandering lonely as a something… Hey, Macklemore liked my tweet! This could be huge for me.”
So it’s not like we’re not on our guard about this loss of creative solitude. But dammit, Periscope is such a good interface that it’s hard to worry about it. If, like me, you are the kind of person who likes to see things but doesn’t like to travel, who believes that you can know and appreciate the world intellectually without having to actually touch and smell every damned thing in it, who can enjoy the majesty of Yosemite as an idea without needing a picture of my own dumb face in front of it, Periscope is close to an ideal form of entertainment.
My first few nights spent on this app, I drifted around the global map to places as tiny and mundane, or as exotic as possible. I watched for a half hour as a middle-aged Japanese man strolled about his home town, window shopping and getting coffee, I watched from backstage as the closing moments of La Traviata rang out at La Scala, I watched Disney’s nightly fireworks display, flipped over to a few minutes of the now middle-aged New Kids on the Block cautiously shimmying in front of a stadium-full of equally arthritic fans, flipped over to a gross industry party at the Beverly Hilton, and then to an Australian beach party, then to a stroll through a housing complex in Novosibirsk, then to a drunken lady screaming at Lebron James on TV in her own living room, then to shaky “Cloverfield cam” footage from the bleachers of a Yankees game, then to a group of 20-something Londoners eating Indian food, then to a young black academic casually fielding questions texted in by his viewers about race, then to three girls getting high in a Dairy Queen parking lot in Nebraska, then to a tourist showing me the grave of Victor Hugo, and on and on until I spent at least an hour listening to Ross Cahill, a hilarious bouncer at a club in Waterford, Ireland, as he bantered it up with his ex-boxer partner.
Then, as I watched a D.C.-area hotel manager named Brian eating a donut for breakfast, I realized I had forgotten to go to sleep and I had a meeting in 20 minutes.
Then there was my local news phase. For some reason, Periscope has become a pet pastime among local news anchors and reporters. They will set their phones up right next to themselves while they read the news and then chat with us during the commercials. They are adorable, all of them, especially when they stop to respond to the stream of bizarre questions coming from us, the masses. The resulting audio, if isolated, would sound like the final ramblings of a madman: “Yes, I do think ISIS is bad. No, I do my own makeup. Yes, she is very pretty when she does the weather. No, we’re not dating. Yes, I think the next president will have a lot of work to do. No, I don’t know who it will be. No, I’m not running. Thank you, but you should probably vote for someone who is.”
I couldn’t get enough of them. They would give us nightly tours of sometimes surprisingly cramped and unimpressive studios. More importantly, they gave us a seat at what may be the most comfortable perch from which to view the world: the warm glow of the local new desk where you watch the vague shapes of news drift by with élan and detachment but still with some sense of being a part of it all. But being local you could do it without ever having to sit across from that crazy loud British airplane crash guy on CNN. These news anchors are in show business, sort of… just enough, while still having what is essentially a shift job that allows them to stop and grab some Chipotle on the way home to watch John Oliver do the real news on DVR. Thanks to Periscope I've come to realize that “local news anchor” is the erogenous zone of lifestyles and I kick myself for not going to journalism school and maintaining a C average, and for having a squeaky voice and non-authoritative hair.
However, I’ve also noticed a change lately. It’s not unpredictable. I knew from the start that as more big media content providers, thirsty with product to push, began to realize that this could be a new form of “drive-by marketing”, more and more celebrities would be popping up from backstage to say “Hi, I Love you! kissy kissy!” to all their fans before handing the phone off to their personal assistant. I knew that these mini-commercials, with their official blue check marks and their “don’t forget to download my new video!” taglines would soon be shoved in my face by the Twitter-industrial complex. Whatever, I ignore it other places, I can ignore it here, too.
But even on my own I started to filter in a not dissimilar way. Over the last few weeks, instead of immediately spinning the globe to watch some regular person in some interesting location, or to watch Atchley deliver the news to Tuscon’s elderly before they go to bed complaining about Kimmel, I’ve tended increasingly toward watching professional entertainers, who are all kind of putting on a show -- a long epic show with many, many chapters.
It started one night when I clicked on the SoCal part of the map and stumbled into a group of young, hungry actors Periscoping from their weekly acting class. I looked the place up and learned that they were paying a premium to run a few scenes and maybe perform every so often at a “showcase” where an agent might decide to schmooze them. This was an interesting glimpse into the life of the young star wannabe. It seemed like a bit of a scam, and I was concerned for them. But what do I know of that world? What I know is that I have never in my life seen more beautiful and doomed people gathered in one small bleak room. It was like God’s premium signature collectible series all still in the box.
I’ve never worked in LA, so I was shaken at what I was seeing, this white dwarf gravitational swarm of perfect human specimens living their natural lives in the wildlife preserve of a shady North Hollywood studio. It was like going on a safari to see baby celebrities take their first steps in the wild. It was like Logan’s Run if there was not only an age cut-off, but also ones for height, weight, and hair-sparkliness. They were all so enthusiastic, so happy, so jazzed to be there. They were giggling and bouncing off the walls.
And they were, each of them, carved straight from Aphrodite’s cheek bones by a rainbow laser wielded by Liv Tyler’s lips. Any one of them could walk into any other city in the world and instantly be the center of a Messianic beauty cult. The guy holding the phone had the most perfectly sculpted human face in history. Then somehow he handed off to another guy, who was ever just so slightly better looking. There were at least 20 of them packed into a cheesy, faux-theater space, and they were all pretty clearly destined for miserable obscurity and failure. How could they not be? L.A must be made up of millions of such monsters, all just as beautiful as these.
There were probably 200 little acting classes meeting that day within a ten-mile radius of this one. I was conflicted. I felt bad for them, yet at the same time I felt envious of their energy and beauty. It’s like, sure, I know Violetta (or if you must, Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge) is going to die a horrible death, but I still want to be her. I felt so much longing to be part of that, and at the same time so much relief that I wasn’t. At the very least I learned that I never ever ever ever want to go to LA. Not even to its airport. If you’ve ever entertained some notion of wanting to be an actor, first take a good look in the mirror. On a scale of 1-10, are you a 60 or 70? If not, then stay in Philadelphia and do local theater and go back to school and get that degree in social work.
Beyond being a moment of bittersweet epiphany about the nature of beauty and desire (and the moment I threw out the Oscar speech I’d been working on since I was ten), it was also a turning point in my own periscope life. I found it invigorating to watch streamed fragments of creative people, unfiltered, behind the scenes of their work. It was the most addicting form of “reality” entertainment I’d ever encountered with none of the annoying failures of reality TV -- no manufactured plots, no jumpy editing, no stupid canned music. I watched bands practicing and writers workshopping. I watched bits and pieces of productions being filmed and I relished every minute.