Anyone who has been following the Cannes Lion Festival can attest that the expansive live-stream coverage has you feeling as close to the festival as possible. Why is live-streaming is so appealing to viewers? A close study of milestones leading up to the “live” platform’s widespread adoption sheds light on where social media might take live video in the future. If one thing is for certain, we’ve caught a serious love of the live. This article was initially published in The Quarterly, H+K’s print magazine. 

The early 90s were a groundbreaking time for live video. While the world was familiar with the concept of radio broadcasts and the use of video to record events for decades before this, it was two major events that helped bring the concepts together to give us the foundation of what we call live video today.

The first, in 1993: a group of under-caffeinated Cambridge University scientists wrote a code that connected a camera in their kitchen to their work lab monitors, helping them know whether their pot of coffee was full or empty. The second, a year later, happened when Mick Jagger stepped on stage with the Rolling Stones for the “first major cyberspace multicast concert.” His opener: “I wanna say a special welcome to everyone that’s, uh, climbed into the Internet tonight…I hope it doesn’t all collapse.”


Needless to say, it didn’t. Live video broadcasts became a staple for newsrooms, sporting events, and even climate research. In the last two decades, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in peoples’ appetite for moving pictures.

While relatively newer platforms such as Snapchat and Twitter-owned Periscope extol the benefits of having an uncurated, intimate, and ephemeral relationship with branded content, older social media juggernauts like YouTube and Instagram come from a tradition of intentionally curated video content that isn’t as off-the-cuff. Of course, this isn’t to say that these platforms are not learning from one another – Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook have all grown ‘live’ appendages, while Snapchat’s filters keep getting more and more intricate, robust, and manicured.

When it comes to the recent growth of live streaming video, there are few forces that have been more impactful than the emergence of social media. The experience of browsing the web is well on its way to becoming an inherently social experience – if it isn’t already there yet. Because there is so much content online, people, at a psychological level, are increasingly drawn to things that they feel involve them, filtering out the rest. This principal applied to the success of live video too.

In an anthropology research paper titled “New Medium, New Practice: Civic Production In Live-Streaming Mobile Video,” Aubudon McKeown Dougherty, argues that “the raw format of live-streaming invites the viewer to participate in [what is called] an ‘intimate visual correspondence.’” In the realm of psychology, this kind of correspondence often stems from parasocial relationships, where only one party is emotionally and intellectually aware of the relationship. The relationships that television hosts form with their at-home audiences is a great example of this: When Trevor Noah says “Good Evening and welcome to the Daily Show,” he’s simultaneously speaking to you but also everyone else.

People are drawn to live stream video not only for its unique and instantaneous content but also because of the feeling of participating in a shared community of viewers and commenters. This impulse isn’t a new phenomenon: the 20th Century German sociologist, philosopher, and critic Georg Simmel characterized it as “the sheer pleasure of being together.” Today,  in the context of social media and at a time when thousands of people are tuning in to watch the same thing at the same time, this pleasure has only become heightened and more widespread.

With over 2 billion active users globally (and counting) with some kind of social media presence, the future of video is tied to the future of how we connect with each other (and not just gain information) – this can be other people, publications, or marketers. All this being said, it comes as no surprise that the people embracing new and inventive forms of video content online are doing so on social platforms.
But before we can talk about the most recent leaps in live video, we must first understand how video itself got to this point.

In many ways, YouTube was the original home of traditional video. If video has now become our mainstream visual language, then YouTube was our first textbook. The platform laid the foundation for early concepts such as “going viral” and the social influencer – then called Vloggers or YouTubers, who would speak to the world from their webcams. Till today, the two most watched videos on the platform (and arguably on any platform) are examples of curated content: pop star Justin Bieber’s music video for “Baby” and PSY’s South Korean smash hit “Gangnam Style.” Collectively, the videos were viewed over 4 billion times and set a precedent for what success looked like on not just YouTube but across social media. These were intentional efforts at fame; formulaic even.

Over the next few years, viral videos – from musicians, YouTubers, everyday people, and even brands – came and left. And because there were so many, no single one stood the test of time. Ultimately, there was a lot left to be desired: most obviously, it was the inclusion of the audience – a communal experience.

The difference between a traditional video and a live-stream began to feel as apparent as that between a voicemail and a phone call. Being ‘live’ meant tuning into a particular time and place; it brought with it a sense of participation and involvement. To continue to grow its audience, video had to include its viewers, in the era of Facebook and Instagram, video too had to go social. Enter our most recent social player: Snapchat. The platform introduced a more personal and intimate way of broadcasting your life to your social network. It demonstrated something interesting and unacknowledged about live streaming: it worked best when it worked for people.

When media organizations like NBC realized its audience’s appetite for consuming live content through social media, they immediately jumped on to Snapchat and, in the summer of 2016, gave us the first ever Snapchat-streamed Olympic Games from Rio – with a little help and curation from Buzzfeed. In addition to seeing events on TV, Facebook, YouTube, and Snapchat allowed people to guide their own experience of the Games, tune in to different aspects and follow specific athlete accounts. While NBC didn’t control all of this, it acted as an open and inclusive gateway, which ultimately led to the campaign’s success.

The most interesting thing about the success of Snapchat as a new kind of live broadcaster is that it breaks the rules of post-production and curation that traditional video platforms like YouTube built. Instead, it built new ones. “I don’t think we’ve established the full value of live video yet,” said Paul Marcum, President of Truffle Pig, an agency co-owned by WPP, Snapchat, and Daily Mail. “It’s all about user control and the emotional value of being ‘in-the-moment.’” As Marcum suggests, this emotional value is becoming increasingly important and it’s helping create a new kind of audience that doesn’t necessarily need stories to be manicured and beautiful in order for them to be affecting.

Most recently, Instagram and Facebook have jumped onto the live video bandwagon, each introducing ‘live’ options. For Instagram, this proves a step beyond curation; beyond just the beautiful and towards the timely and relevant. For Facebook – which has seen a 400 percent increase in live streaming since May 2016 – it gave media publishers an opportunity to inform and entertain their social audiences in real time, which is a big step for a platform that a seventh of the world logs into daily.

Dunkin Donuts, for example, jumped on the train early in February 2016 with a Valentine’s Day themed live-stream of their test kitchen, while also announcing a $10,000 prize for couples that would share their engagement stories on the Dunkin Donuts website. In another creative move, Tastemade, in March 2016, built its very own miniature test kitchen, which was then used to make real, miniature food – all on the live stream. The campaign caught Facebook community’s attention in a big way and racked up over 45,000 views. Slowly but surely, brands and media organizations are beginning to understand what success looks like on the ‘live’ platform.

While both these efforts – and social live video in general, for that matter – are still too new to diagnose, they demonstrate the return of an invaluable behavior among audiences: true engagement and attentiveness. With live video, you don’t know what’s going to happen next, and with some platforms, like Snapchat, if you miss it you miss it. This cocktail of suspense and instantaneousness, coupled with the communal act of ‘tuning in’ to a stream, have bolstered the live content trend.

Video on the Internet has always moved forward by questioning and renegotiating the rules it was built upon. The growth of live video is simply another evolution towards an online experience that is more social and community driven. As platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat continue to push boundaries of what it means to be social on the internet in 2017, there’s no doubt we’ll see an even deeper transformation in the way we envision live video.