Her voice was husky but piercing. It floated through a stifled buzz. The Jack Daniel’s had hit the spot.
It was 2010, and I was watching singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell perform at the dimly lit 12 Bar Club in Soho, London; finally experiencing the romance I had expected of the city, after six months of wandering its streets. I should have wanted to soak in every second. I should have been rooted to the spot. Yet I felt impelled to leave. After four songs, I found myself walking out of the back exit and into a narrow alley. I had to call someone and tell them about what I was listening to; someone who would instantly understand why a clear voice through a dark bar would make me melancholy and elated at once. It could not, despite all logic demanding it, wait till after Mitchell’s set.
Since they launched last month, live-streaming mobile applications Periscope (owned by social media giant Twitter) and Meerkat have been monopolizing column space in newspaper technology sections. Both apps, currently available only on iOS, let you broadcast live video from your smartphone to the app’s other users or to a private group of friends and followers. Tech intelligentsia thinks the apps could revolutionize citizen journalism, while naysayers have been worrying about the further erosion of privacy and the impossibility of monitoring graphic content.
But live-streaming apps seem like just the next step in a digital world where people have been progressively uploading fragments of their life closer and closer to real time. In a survey we conducted of 20 people between ages 20 and 35 who use social media regularly, 17 said they post photos on social media platforms immediately after taking them. It would seem that we have been letting people watch us live for quite a while now.
When we began broadcasting our lives on social media, in the early 2000s, we had to upload photos from our cameras to our personal computers and then decide which ones to post on Facebook. Then cameras and the Internet both became available on our smartphones, and the time between taking a photograph and uploading it to a social media site decreased significantly. Now, everything on social media, from Instagram to Twitter to messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Snapchat, seems to encourage users to act on impulse; to post thoughts, photographs and videos instantly.
“If I post a picture, it has to be in that moment. It loses meaning if I upload it the next day,” says Vastavika Meher, a 25-year-old airline pilot and participant in our survey.
Some theories attribute this trend of live posting to an obsession with celebrityhood and the wearing down of attention spans. There is certainly an element of self-importance that accompanies anyone posting a picture of their holiday or expensive meal as they are experiencing it.
According to Rajiv Dingra, founder and chief executive officer of WATConsult, a digital agency, live posting is a way to boast without looking like a braggart. “If you call up a friend and tell them about all the cool things you have been doing, it seems like you are doing so just to make him jealous. But if you live-post or live-stream a part of your holiday, it does not seem like you are showing off.”
Many people post pictures and videos instantly simply because they are worried they will forget to later, suggests Zafar Rais, chief executive officer and founder of MindShift Interactive, a digital outreach agency. “I try to wait 5 minutes before posting a picture, but patience wears thin,” says Aakanksha Gupta, a 26-year-old public relations executive who participated in our survey.
When I think about that night in London, though, I know for certain that my urge to connect with someone was not motivated by either a wish to boast or a fear of losing the moment. It was because I wanted to imagine a familiar face next to me, and I knew I would be able to visualize their expressions if I spoke to them on the phone.
Of the 20 people we surveyed, only nine said they experienced a thrill or rush when they posted a picture instantly and received immediate feedback. However, 17 said they had experienced a feeling of warmth when sending a picture of what they were doing to a loved one. “My three best friends now all live in different countries, so I frequently send them photos while I’m doing things that I miss doing with them,” says Pankti Mehta, a 26-year-old journalist. “It’s a way for them to be virtually present for these moments.”
When Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds For The Better, began interviewing people in the 2000s about why they used social media, they all described the “connectedness” they felt while reading or posting updates. “I thought, there has to be a word for that,” Thompson says. “Turns out, it’s called ‘ambient awareness’, which is a psychological term for the ability we have to stitch together pieces of information to form a picture of the moods and lives of people around us.”
We, it turns out, have always had a desire to let people know about us. Before social media existed, we did so in subtler ways. If you’re reading this at work, try to close your eyes and guess the mood of colleagues sitting around you. You will be surprised how much you know about them even if you haven’t spoken to them all day. They’ve been giving out ambient signals through body language, tone, expressions and a number of other ways, and you have the extrasensory perception to weave those signs into a story.
Today, we give out ambient signals through social media. Our desire to connect and post instantly, it would seem, stems from wanting to portray a more accurate timeline of events in our life. You wouldn’t walk home with your shoulders drooping three days after a frustrating day, so why would you call someone after a concert, or post a picture of you looking excitedly at a bowl of ice cream three days, or even 3 hours, later?
In his book, Thompson writes about a study by Mizuko Ito, a cultural anthropologist in Japan, which found that couples who lived in different houses but constantly updated each other on what they were doing through instant messaging felt like they were staying together.
The constant sharing of fragments of our life could, however, be altering the way we are structuring our memories. A large part of communication earlier involved recollecting moments in our lives and building a narrative around them that could be relayed through letters or weekly phone calls. As our online profiles increasingly move towards being a continuous stream of instantly uploaded photographs and videos, we may lose motivation to reflect on our lives. While talking to immigrants in the US, Thompson found that while they liked being constantly updated on the lives of their family and friends back home, many missed the special moments that occurred during weekly phone calls.
The path to instant posting and live-streaming also throws up interesting questions about how we enjoy experiences. It seems to suggest that we do draw, and perhaps always have drawn, as much pleasure from thinking about how we will narrate an experience to someone as from the experience itself. Social media allows us to enjoy the sensation of being in a moment and reminiscing about it at the same time. The excitement of experience and the nostalgia of recollection are collapsed into one moment of heightened emotion.
One interesting thing that emerged from our survey was that though people post more often and faster on social media platforms, they still put as much thought into the decision of what to share and what not to. Ten participants actually said they are more judicious about what they post now—they are wary of their privacy being invaded, and of adding to an already cluttered space. This may dissuade social media users from moving from instant posting to live- streaming. That instinct, however, will be constantly challenged by the impulse we have to feel, share and remember all at once.