Lindsay Holding of Minneapolis is planning to broadcast the birth of her second child over the internet. Friends and family will be able to watch and comment throughout the labor process. “Yes, I’m a crazy person, and I’m going to livestream my son’s birth,” the 33-year-old said.

Live video is quickly becoming an enticing way for people to share and, some would say, overshare their lives online.

“It’s a powerful way to communicate because there’s no way to know what is going to happen next or whether something might go wrong,” said Shayla Stern, senior digital strategist at Fast Horse, a Minneapolis marketing agency. “You can’t look away from a compelling live video.”

With new, easy-to-use platforms and apps, a recent crop of livestreaming videos is shining a spotlight on the positive and negative realities of real-time video technology.

Last month, “Chewbacca Mom” got her 15 minutes of fame after hundreds of thousands of people shared the feel-good Facebook Live video of her laughing hysterically while wearing a plastic Wookiee mask. Less funny — at least to his wife — was when a California man accidentally broadcast the birth of his son on Facebook. And a week earlier, strangers watched in helpless horror as a 19-year-old French woman used Periscope, a live video streaming app, to broadcast her suicide.

Although livestreaming video isn’t new, the addition of Facebook Live has launched it into the mainstream. Now anyone with a smartphone has the ability to turn the camera on themselves and post real-time video.

This new human experience is raising a lot of questions about privacy, ethics and intimacy online. Many are asking: “Just because we can livestream, does it mean we should?”

Holding admits that some of her friends and family think she’s crazy for livestreaming a birth, but she insists, “It’s not a big deal.” Only her closest friends and family — 40 or 50 of them — will be given the link to watch; the camera angles will be discreet, and it will be turned off when it comes time to push.

“Whoever is going to be watching are going to be people I love, and I want them to be there with me,” she said. “As technology becomes a bigger part of our lives, things like this will be less of a big deal.”

Livestreaming gives viewers a chance to be a fly on the wall at events they would traditionally need an invitation to.

Tens of thousands of people recently watched on Facebook, in real time, as comedian Ricky Gervais took a bath. BuzzFeed livestreamed the skin-tightening surgery of a man who lost 270 pounds, and more than 800,000 people watched when a watermelon exploded under the pressure of more than 700 rubber bands wrapped around its center.

Unusual? Sure, but experts say these are exactly the kind of live videos that are hard to look away from.

“Livestreaming allows audiences to feel that they are experiencing events live and unfiltered, in front of their eyes,” said Valerie Belair-Gagnon, an incoming assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, who will teach a class on new media and culture. “It is also powerful because it has the potential to reach certain groups of people with specific interests, share content and interact with each other.”

Other recent livestreamed events have allowed viewers to virtually swim with sharks, watch movies with Shia LaBeouf and watch Mark Zuckerberg’s live interactive Q&A with NASA astronauts in space.

“You no longer have to experience the event by going somewhere,” said Greg Swan, vice president of public relations and emerging media at Minneapolis digital ad agency Space 150.

Guests have been able to virtually attend weddings, funerals, church services and graduations for years, but advances in technology are making it easier than ever.

Naomi Hoffman projected her cousin’s wedding onto her TV and her husband’s grandmother came over to watch. Hoffman, a St. Louis Park mother of two, also often uses FaceTime to virtually have dinner with her husband, who works long hours as a doctor.

“It doesn’t replace being in a room with somebody,” she said. “But it’s the next best thing.”

Livestreaming misadventures

Whether it’s an occasion staged for social media, a personal video that goes viral or a news event, the reach is powerful, with viewership sometimes comparable to TV.

Chewbacca Mom had the laugh heard around the world, driving 50 million views in less than 24 hours and earning her the title of having the most viewed Facebook Live video of all time.

“To put that into context, 58,000 people went to the Beyoncé concert at TCF Bank Stadium recently, fewer than 10 million people watched the Billboard Music Awards, 17 million watched the last game of the World Series last fall and 34 million watched the Oscars,” Swan said.

Livestreaming also arms citizen journalists with a tool to share raw, uncut and unprocessed video of major news events. For instance, within 12 hours of the grand jury announcement in Ferguson, Mo., livestreamers using UStream and LiveStream racked up 4.8 million views.

Imagine if folks in the World Trade Center had the ability to stream live video from smartphones on Sept. 11, 2001.

But the very things that make livestreaming video attractive are what make it difficult to filter the bad from the good. Lives are always on display — and it’s not always pretty. In the weeks since Facebook Live launched to the masses, the tool has been used to stream a suicide, a rape and a standoff with police.

“The dark side of livestreaming is that everyone can record anything and start broadcasting,” said Jen Jamar, co-organizer of the Minneapolis-St. Paul chapter of Social Media Breakfast. “You not only have to worry about someone ‘snapping’ you at an inopportune moment in a picture; now they might capture you on live video saying or doing something that’s out of context.”

It’s clear there are many questions about the ethical issues around privacy, safety and intellectual property with livestreamed video. For example, fans can livestream the Twins game and the Kenny Chesney concert — but should they?

“We should be talking about what is fair game for livestreaming,” Fast Horse’s Stern said. “There are a lot of ethical — and potentially legal — ramifications to livestreaming events that one person perceives to be private and another sees as public. We’ve been struggling with this issue in terms of the photos we post to social media, but live video complicates it even further.”

 

@aimeeblanchette