Around 3:15 p.m. yesterday, a building in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood exploded and caught fire, injuring 19 people–three critically. As of this writing, at least two people are reported missing.
The blast, apparently “caused by plumbing and gas work being done” in the neighborhood, according to the New York Times, shook nearby restaurants, drew crowds of people into the streets, and sent up a thick gray smoke plume that could be seen across the city. As often happens now, witnesses tweeted and Instagrammed photos and videos of the scene. But for the first time, people also flocked to two brand-new live-streaming apps: the month-old Meerkat and the then-hours-old Periscope. Live-streaming video has suddenly gotten easier than ever before–and as is the case every time social media takes a leap forward, a host of practical and ethical questions about using technology during times of tragedy have presented themselves.
How These Apps Work
The two apps are not identical, but they serve the same basic function: They stream video straight from your phone to the Internet. You open the smartphone app and start a broadcast–the interface looks a lot like any other camera app–and give the live stream a title if you so wish. Other people using the app tune into your broadcast mid-stream, and watch and listen along live. Viewers can “like” what they see and submit comments that pop up in real time in the lower-left-hand corner of the screen. Periscope, launched by social network Twitter on Thursday morning, offers an optional replay button–but Meerkat streams are as ephemeral as Snapchats. They vanish.
On Thursday afternoon, video feeds of the smoke plume and crowded streets were accompanied by rapidly changing comment bubbles (“where is this?” “east village” “what happened?” “gas explosion”). On Periscope, colorful hearts floated upward, incongruously parallel to the smoke, whenever a viewer tapped his or her smartphone screen to indicate a “like.”
Before yesterday, I had never used Meerkat or Periscope. As a new user, I found Periscope much easier than Meerkat, both for finding streams of the situation and for broadcasting my own video of the smoke, which I could see from the Fast Company offices in 7 World Trade Center. Both apps link up to your Twitter account, though Periscope, because it is owned by Twitter, seamlessly links to your Twitter connections and sends push notifications when one of them starts a stream.
When I opened Meerkat for the first time, the home screen showed me only a few stream options to watch. Two were of the fire and had more than 400 watchers each. Meerkat abruptly lost access to Twitter’s social graph during SXSW, and the app’s developers are still working on tools that would make it easier to find videos, founder Ben Rubin told Fast Company recently. (Today, Meerkat app added new discovery features.) With Periscope, however, I was presented with more than 20 live video options. I tapped streams geotagged “New York” and found a few distant views of the smoke plume, and then one shaky street-level feed that swung between the fire a few blocks away, a crowd of people standing together, and a TV journalist, setting up for a broadcast. One viewer commented, “whoa a reporter.”
When I started my own Meerkat broadcast, no one tuned in, and I later discovered that the app had sent two all-caps tweets on my behalf that read “|LIVE NOW|”. On Periscope, when I started my own stream of the distant smoke plume, within a few seconds I had 95 watchers who discussed the situation in short comments and answered each other’s questions (though not always accurately; one viewer wrote, wrongly, that three people had been killed). Confused by the mix of clouds, fog, and smoke, one viewer asked me to point to the building. That confused me, and I looked for some kind of “point” button on screen, with no luck. A few hours later I realized he just wanted me to hold out my hand in front of the camera and point.
Is It Wrong To Watch?
I feel a bit embarrassed describing my efforts to find and share live footage of a burning building. I had what I felt was an acceptably non-morbid motivation: I wanted to learn about how people were using two new apps that my publication had been covering over the past few weeks, and as a journalist, I wanted to learn more about these new broadcasting tools.
But I also just wanted to know what people there were doing and saying, and to see what damage a familiar neighborhood had suffered. Some people on Twitter took issue with the use of live-streaming apps during the event, arguing that it was distasteful or unethical to do so when people’s lives were still in danger.
But I think it is human nature to want to share these kinds of stories, and to stop and watch a fire with strangers, whether on the street or online. A house on my street burned down when I was 3 or 4 years old, and I remember watching it for what felt like hours with my father and the dozens of neighbors who came out to stare. My father captured the fire on video with his home-movie camera. The family who lived in the house was out of town, and there was nothing to do but watch the flames. In a grim way, it was a communal experience–something terrible and incredible was happening in our neighborhood. It would have been strange if we hadn’t all stood outside and watched it together. The Internet has in many ways erased physical boundaries like neighborhoods, and it is not a bad thing that people are interested in what is happening to strangers across the world.