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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.

My Obsessive Affection

It was, for awhile inspiring. I would fire up Persicope and, while I was struggling with my own dumb work, I could enjoy seeing other people struggling with theirs. A young filmmaker named Melanie Recker scoped a few times from the set of a pilot that she had written and was self-producing. Young, excited actors and crew were cramped in a friend’s house making something happen. Comedian and voice artist Josh Robert Thompson chronicled in great detail the creative highs and lows of producing and trying to sell his own phantasmagoric space-puppet-variety show. Thompson, in particular, is open about the difficulties finding breathing room in a media environment clogged with teenaged Youtubers and social media pan-flashes. He would eventually use Periscope as a platform to raise interest (and over $50,000 on IndieGoGo) to complete post-production on his project, all by letting strangers across the world see and appreciate his work live one “scope” at a time.

The burst of endorphins I get when one of my favorite people is live tells me that for we viewers, the steady stream of other people’s lives, now for the first time available live and clear and reliably, and no longer filtered through the gaudy distribution mechanism of cable TV, threatens to permanently relieve me of my own alone time.

I was suddenly rooting for these people I had never heard of and will never meet and who may or may not be famous some day. It was like I was building my own celebrity fantasy league and choosing whom to bet on. I was oddly motivated knowing that there were hundreds of similar people, and that they and I and everyone were all typing, producing, practicing, pitching all day and night. It was an energizing phase of my addiction, a 24/7 red-dotted globe of creativity and anxiety.

That brings me to the where I am now. I began over the next few weeks to isolate myself with a small group of one particular type of person — a handful of favorites to whom I am dedicated to the point where I could probably cosplay as one of them. I don’t start with the map, anymore. When I open Periscope now, I go right to my fave five and see how their lives are going. It has become like a little personally programmed inverted Big Brother, where I’m the one locked in a room and the competitors and cameras are all scattered outside in the world, or at least around Inglewood, California.

I’d like to think it’s a reality show about a meretricious class of clever people whose every minor daily task holds the potential for creative energy. Thus, my favorites are all “of a type”. They are all comedians, and none of them are quite where they want to be yet. They also all spend a lot of time, at least during the times they choose to broadcast themselves, doing a kind of lonely practice, talking to themselves, mugging for a phantom audience, inventing voices and characters, obsessing over inside jokes and whispered asides about everything that passes by them.

They all seem to be operating with a vague sense that this app will help them build an audience. This is in part because it allows them more expressive flexibility than other forms of outreach — Instagram or Vine or Twitter. They can invite us into their lives not for a blurb or a pic or a gif, but for an extended conversation/exhibition on a platform not yet overcrowded, like Youtube, with low-fi amateur wunderkinds and corporate “advertainments”. But they also all seem to recognize that their particular field, comedy, relies on faith in personality and that faith is driven by the audience’s trust in the authenticity of a person who often claims to reveal absurdity or hypocrisy in the world. Letting people into that life is a way to demonstrate, and perhaps to practice, the fearless openness that contemporary comedy demands. It is, essentially, free open mic time, whenever they want it, wherever they are.

There is Steven Brody Stevens, a brilliant improv comic who has the ability to stroll on stage at the comedy store and just “hang out” for half an hour, bouncing off of maybe two or three prepared jokes into a stream-of-consciousness pep rally that always overwhelms his audience. His broadcasts over Periscope remind us of the connection between loneliness and creativity. One of the things Stevens is fond of pointing out during his rants is that his life, while it is in “show business” is essentially a solitary one: “I eat 98 percent of my meals alone, and that includes snacks!” I can attest that this is true because he takes me, via periscope, everywhere and, apart from all of us living in his phone, he is almost always by himself. He has periscoped alone from his car, from his gigs, from his apartment closet when his neighbor Mark complains about him making noise, when he is out to eat, when he travels for work. We are his companions, and in a weird “Her-esque” way, he is our friend. We root for him. We worry about him. But we are not really there, and to anyone watching him he looks demented, grinning and talking into his phone and holding it up to show it the world as if it was a little Tamagotchi he was taking for a walk.

So, despite his constant engagement with us, the alone-ness is real. For anyone watching who struggles with social anxiety, it’s quite liberating to see someone with such a gift for working a crowd spend so much of his time avoiding them. From the moment he leaves the stage, he seems anxious to get away. Barely stopping to make some small talk, he’s soon back on the street by himself, talking only to us through a little portal in his hand. He drives around in the late night hours, parks, sings and drums along with the radio. All of it, the creativity, the misery, the euphoria, happens alone.

Periscope seems to provide him with a kind of virtual muse, a set of eyes, a following that he doesn’t want to disappoint and that keeps him turned on. He’s not alone in using the app this way. Thompson takes his viewers on improvised puppet-based trips through his collection of new-age vinyl and old black and white serials, his broadcasts adding up to a long free-form variety show done from his apartment in reports about his “real world” gigs (“two hours driving to read two lines in the voice of Matthew McConaughy”).

Meanwhile, the infamously troubled comedian Andy Dick is going through a newfound sobriety on periscope in a very calculated way. Dick, in particular seems to benefit from the constant presence of virtual companions. We have become like a worldwide army of sponsors, keeping him occupied, keeping him honest. We are there with him when he wakes up and exercises, when he drives to meetings. We have met his daughter and son and watched him backstage, on stage, in Rome to shoot a movie. With no time alone, he is able to engage that part of his brain that is churning with funny ideas all the time. With less and less non-camera time, there is, hopefully, less down time — and less dark time.

Then there’s @LittleEsther, Esther Povitsky who, on the surface, lives her life in the complete opposite of Stevens’ isolation. If time alone, to brainstorm and write, is necessary for some comedians, for Povitsky it’s an odious burden. Whereas Stevens seems completely at home being by himself, Povitsky cannot stand it. As best I can tell, her creative process feeds on her interactions with various circles of companions, progressing through a social filtering process: from chatting to banter to a few collected morsels that she can work into jokes. She will be the first to admit this, ironically whining “I’m sooooo lonely” to an audience of 500 people, after having been by herself in her apartment for maybe an hour.

She is another busy comedian on the hustle in LA, and just like Stevens, she’s living that busy life on Periscope – -making her own one-woman self-produced low-tech reality show: avoiding work, going to the dentist, doing commercial work, auditioning for “sarcastic friend of hot girl” at least once or twice a week, and killing the long hours between work moments by lip-synching and dancing to Amy Winehouse in front of her phone, cruising for fast food, and pestering her midwestern parents with prank phone calls. A visit home for the holidays and she instantly becomes a sullen teen again. The results are spontaneous and hilarious.

Whatever time she once had to herself is now filled with a small army of regular viewers and nothing is off limits. A trip to the dentist reveals four cavities, a rather astounding number for anyone over the age of 11, I believe. Rather than a lesson for her, this provides a chance to harangue her parents for raising her to be a misfit, while refusing their pleas to stop eating every day like it’s the morning after Halloween. This casual disregard for adulthood is a major part of her periscope persona. She can whittle away an entire evening working on a puzzle or dancing to oldies, but rarely finds time for something so mundane as a shower, a workout, or a meal that doesn’t come from a sack with a cartoon character on it.

There’s an element of wish-fulfillment in this, at least for me. I watch this woman who is managing to make a real career for herself in that same brutal dream factory as my sad roomful of doomed acting-class beauties, but somehow managing to also live a teenager’s life of reckless eating, juvenile obsessions, mixtape making, and hours of what seems on the surface to be utterly wasted time. If I can’t be a local news anchor, I think I’d like to be Esther Povitsky.

Still, there’s this hovering cloud of how Periscope inadvertently taps into and drains away our solitary selves, whether one is broadcasting or watching. Povitsky, Stevens, Dick, and Thompson all feel compelled to live their lives as a comedy bit. For them, it’s part of the job. Moreover, Periscope has made that lifelong fantasy of every kid who did impressions in front of their mirror holding a comb as a microphone into a real possibility. But for most of us, this may not be the best use of our time. Most of us need solitude to do our work. My own constant drive to pick up the phone and click the tab to see if Povitsky or Stevens or Guy Atchely with KGUN Action news! are on the air has become 24-hour competition with whatever little useful bit my own brain might be hoping to get around to some day. There’s literally always something interesting on because someone in the arts is always someone amazing crouched backstage or in studio or in their gallery doing something interesting somewhere. Unlike on television, on Periscope, those people are just as likely to be modern dancers, classical pianists, or short-story writers as they are to be squawking pawn shop owners or hideous McMansion proprietresses.

The burst of endorphins I get when one of them is live tells me that for we viewers, the steady stream of other people’s lives, now for the first time available live and clear and reliably, and no longer filtered through the gaudy distribution mechanism of cable TV threatens to permanently relieve me of my own alone time. That’s not so great for someone who is supposed to be thinking or writing most of the day. Perhaps the allure will wear off. It feels a bit like the giddy thrill those of a certain age felt when we first chatted with someone in India via AOL (“Hey, guys, this is really a guy over there!”), or first time we picked up an AM radio signal from the BBC on a shortwave (“They speak English, like the real fancy kind of English with “ou” instead of “o”!”), or the first time we got a famous person to favorite something we tweeted (May 26: “Overheard at a perfume store: Man, this place smells like a perfume factory!” – @blaincapatch favorited your tweet) Like those, my periscope addiction will likely settle down, and I will quietly wait for the next thing, hopefully 360 degrees opposite of the live streaming virtual reality that currently allows me to be in my basement while sitting onstage at the MET. I’ll wait for that holodeck experience to ruin Summer/Fall, 2019. The year 2015 is already a shambolic memory.

Michael Markham is an associate professor of Music History at the State University of New York at Fredonia. His writings on Baroque music and performance spaces, on solo song, and on J. S. Bach have appeared in Gli spazi della musica, The Cambridge Opera Journal, The Opera Quarterly, and Repercussions. Two recent essays can be found in The Music Room in Early Modern France and Italy: Sound, Space, and Object and The Music History Classroom.