Five years ago, the city of San Diego set up a camera on the beach as a tourism aid. Surfers could log on to check wave swells and see if it was worth the drive down to the shore. Sunbathers could check if a haze blotted out their tanning potential. And I, living in a landlocked city 8,106 miles from my childhood home, could log on and meditate on the waves crashing just as I did when I lived there as a teenager.
It was, admittedly, a somewhat pathetic way of assuaging my homesickness. Who else would pass the time glued to a laptop, watching a rather boring ocean scene?
As it turns out, thousands of other users have come to love what I had discovered on that flickering screen, so much so that live-stream videos are fast becoming the largest growing division of online video. YouTube just launched its YouTube Live channel in April, to compete with a field already well populated with companies such as the popular UStream, LiveStream and Justin.TV. More than 100 million people have logged online to watch eagles hatch eggs, and 72 million people opted to see the British royal wedding online instead of on a television.
So just when our TV watching has been freed from the confines of time and space by TiVos and DVRs, we're seeking raw, unedited, uncontrollably in-the-moment viewing experiences online.
There are a few reasons, and most echo what’s appealing about the Internet in general.
For starters, live streaming levels distance, like much of the Internet. When Chris Hondros died in Libya, the photographer’s funeral was aired on UStream, the most popular live-streaming site. The world traveller had far-flung friends and admirers, and the streaming allowed them to grieve together as a community without flying to New York.
Also like much of the Internet, live streaming is a social experience. As cable operators struggle to move users between the television set and online conversations, live streams often offer up live chats in tandem with the stream. Pat Lillis, of Aztec, NM, started watching two eagles in Decorah, Iowa, after a friend there mentioned the show to her. Lillis, who now lives in Santa Fe, said she also liked the “bustling chat” that accompanied the experience, as well as sharing the glee when the chicks first appearing on screen.
On- or offline, people enjoy the notion of experiencing things simultaneously with thousands of others. There’s a keen satisfaction in noting the ambient numbers: ‘26,370 others logged on to watch the eagle with me Tuesday.’
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