Chat It Up: Livestream, UStream and

Hannah Eaves February 1, 2010

Just over a year ago we witnessed an historic event when President Barack Obama took office. But in the virtual world another—albeit less monumental—breakthrough was happening. CNN took the event live online, alongside a Facebook Live Stream Box, allowing viewers to chat with friends and strangers, their conversation appearing next to the video. CNN reported 21.3 million streams by mid-afternoon, breaking all records. To Facebook, 600,000 updates were posted, with 4,000 updates per minute during the broadcast. Several months later the Jonas brothers came along and utterly shattered that record: 23,000 posts per minute. Long ago we dismissed chat rooms as dark holes filled with unpleasant people and noise. But with live steaming services surviving and event-based communication growing, has this become a case of, The Chat Room is Dead, Long Live the Chat Room?

As bandwidth access improves, more and more companies and individuals are experimenting with live streaming because of its potential to provide a communal experience around their shows.

For potential publishers, several services exist that offer free video streaming alongside a chat window, most prominently: Livestream (formerly Mogulus), , Ustream and Stickam . Most of them offer the same set of features—a video player where your live video stream can play, an open chat window where users with accounts can participate, and the option to use Facebook or Twitter to contribute. The player, with the chat box, can be embedded on your own site, and you can choose to do a traditional live stream, where your Video In (or webcam) signal is detected, or you can simply select a file to play as though it is live.

All the main services also have their own websites, and the streaming plays both on their site, and on yours. The advantage of this is that they have a built in audience; the disadvantage is that their audience may not be of the highest calibre (more on this later).

The free versions of these services are supported by ads that appear before your video plays, and as overlays during the video. All these platforms also offer a premium paid account level which allows you to either remove or dictate your own advertising, but at present the pricing structures are prohibitively high.

How can filmmakers use these tools? Like everything in the online world, this depends on rights. If you’ve made a deal with a major broadcaster, you can take most of this off the table. What we’re looking at doing at Link TV is inviting some of our high profile guests to appear via webcam after the premiere broadcast of the program they’re featured in to answer viewer questions. We will stream the program itself both on our site, and on the live streaming partner’s website, and solicit questions during the program. Then immediately afterwards, the guest will appear via webcam to answer the best questions, as well as respond to people during the Q&A session.

The best performing live streams so far have been structured around live events, and more and more conferences are offering live streams of their sessions. This expands the already massive feedback loop that happens at conferences via Twitter. Many high profile tech events project the audience Twitter reaction to the session while it’s happening, offering an alternative reality view of the event. At a conference as large as SXSWi, this can become overwhelming, and a need has emerged to develop filters for the comments. Who can contemplate processing 23,000 posts a minute (let alone all of them about the Jonas Brothers!).

One of several start-ups in this space, Hot Potato , aims to combat this overload by offering ways to limit your experience to just friends and certain power posters. Facebook also offers their Live Stream Box, which can appear next to a stream provided by any video host (Livestream, Ustream or otherwise) directly on Facebook. The box allows you to toggle between what your friends are posting, and what the entire viewing population is posting. There are two unfortunate limitations though – all your posts go into your actual status update, so your friends who aren’t watching the event get a weird disjointed stream of updates (albeit appended with, for example, "Via Jonas Brothers Live Video Chat"), and when you toggle to the friends-only view you see all their updates, regardless of whether they’re about the event.

Hot Potato also supports video streaming, seemingly only for special events at this stage, and has the additional bonuses of letting you know about other events that are happening nearby, and also allowing you to post photos of the event if you’re there.

More than most other online areas, the live streaming/event commentary space is constantly evolving, with new features being announced every week. This constant flux brings with it the hope that many of the current pitfalls will evolve out in the path of natural selection.

Which brings us to the websites themselves. To be brutal about it, even though some of them advertise high profile upcoming events like the State of the Union Address and DAVOS, any given random visit is likely to land you in public access hell. Except when you tune into public access channels, at least it’s just one stream. Here, you can browse through hundreds of bad guitar jams, Harry Potter tribute shows and local sporting events. A sample visit at around 7:30 p.m. gave me the following featured programs: "High level commentary on competitive Starcraft matches from an 11-year veteran," "The Arts, Healing, and Activism initiative sponsored by The Harry Potter Alliance!" "2010 U.S. Junior Curling Nationals in Bemidji Minnesota," "Pickle Jam" on "Guitar Pickle."

Checking in during the day got me a group of puppies suckling. With 4,100 live viewers. And while on the options were better, they were illegal: Seinfeld, Friends, Lost, and South Park, to name just a few.

As for the quality of the discourse, the one exchange I attempted, though NSFW (or children) was telling.

ME: They need a wider lens.

Ah, chat rooms. So different, and yet so the same. As anyone who’s tweeted at an event will know, not all exchanges are like this. Like many conference or film festival encounters, they can lead to lasting online friendships with like-minded individuals. But the same issues that plagued old chat rooms are clearly still in evidence. But for now I choose to hold my judgment until a few smart start ups offer up a solution.

Hannah Eaves is a periodic film journalist with a long, steady background in film, video and new media. Her writing has appeared in SOMA magazine, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary Film, and online at GreenCine, PopMatters, Grist and elsewhere. She currently tries to keep her head above water as Director of New Media at Link TV, a Peabody Award-winning national satellite television station. In her spare time she dreams about her old, "laid back" Australian life, and the healing qualities of Victoria Bitter.