How Ferguson brought live streams into the mainstream

Citizen footage widened the lens of civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and it brought live-streaming to popular attention in the US unlike any confrontation has before.

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Argus Radio reached 80,000 concurrent viewers of its live video stream of police clashing with protestors in Ferguson. Argus Radio/Screenshot by Joan E. Solsman/CNET

For many people in the US, their first glimpse of the violence in Ferguson, Mo., came via an Internet live stream.

The shooting death of Michael Brown -- a black, unarmed 18-year-old -- by a white police officer on Aug. 9 triggered days of protests and violent clashes with law enforcement in the past few weeks. As militarized police kept news organizations' satellite trucks at a distance and members of the press were handcuffed alongside protestors, video taken by on-the-ground citizens and quickly posted on the Internet became the lens through which many saw the melee.

Millions of people watched the drama unfold on sites like Livestream and Ustream, services that let anyone record and then broadcast quality video live over the Internet. The platforms have attracted more and more viewers as CNN and the other mainstream media outlets use on-the-ground footage -- sometimes borrowed from Livestream and Ustream themselves -- to augment their own reporting.

Factors like the improving audio-visual capabilities of today's smartphones and tablets, high-speed mobile networks, and increased usage of platforms like Twitter are hastening the rise of live-streamed video over the Internet as a way to document civil unrest around the world. In Ferguson, these factors contributed to crowdsourced news reporting on a scale we haven't seen in the US before now. While Brown's death was tragically premature, the subsequent protests came at the right time for live-streaming to come into its own as a news tool.

"The inability to hide -- for the government or anyone to hide anything newsworthy -- it's only starting," said Max Haot, chief executive of Livestream. "What's really unique is how much faster and bigger [Ferguson] became. It shows the impact live-streaming is having and will have in the future."

A stream surge

Argus Radio, an independent digital radio station in St. Louis, used a Livestream account it originally set to up to broadcast concerts to create one of the first live streams of police/protestor confrontation in Ferguson. In an area with tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets flying, beyond police checkpoints where no TV truck was able to go, Argus volunteer Mustafa Hussein used the Livestream iPhone app and its night-vision filter to record and broadcast live.

Argus' video went viral. It reached 80,000 concurrent viewers during the live stream on the night of August 13, according to Haot. After CNN and MSNBC used footage from the stream throughout its coverage the following day, the Argus video has since been viewed 1.3 million times.

Overall, Livestream has recorded about 2 million views a night across all the streams coming out of Ferguson. In that same time period, CNN has twice cracked ratings of 1 million viewers for its weekday prime-time broadcast.

Ustream is seeing high levels of engagement, too. The platform has hosted 287 broadcasts from Ferguson, which have been posted primarily through its mobile phone app, and it reached more than a million unique viewers who have collectively watched 16 million minutes of video. The viewers tend to watch longer: The average amount of time a viewer watches a Ferguson stream before jumping out is 23 minutes, while the norm across all the site's videos is about 15 to 17 minutes. Some Ferguson live streams have averaged up 47 minutes of continuous viewing.

Brad Hunstable, CEO of Ustream, compared the recent live streams from Ferguson to those from the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York in 2011. The difference, he said, is that streaming from Ferguson is helped by speedier network connections and better equipment. 3G networks were the norm during Occupy Wall Street, but now broadcasters have more access to LTE, the next-generation networking standard with faster speeds.

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Ustream CEO Brad Hunstable at the streaming media company's headquarters in San Francisco. James Martin/CNET

Microphones are also able to capture better-quality audio and stability equipment helps take out jitter, improving the viewing experience for mainstream audiences.

And another big difference: the number of people who now use social site Twitter.

Social unrest

Twitter is credited as a communications tool for dissidents and protestors, as much as it has been viewed as a way to get the latest news. The hashtag #Ferguson hit its highest usage on Aug. 13, four days after Brown was shot, according to social-media research company Topsy. The hashtag -- a way to categorize tweets around a common theme -- was used nearly 2 million times that day. That peak was reached on the same day reporters from the Huffington Post and Washington Post were arrested while working out of a McDonald's.

Overall, Topsy says, the hashtag #Ferguson has been used more than 9 million times in the past month. In comparison, a hashtag for the ALS ice-bucket challenge (#icebucketchallenge) was used more than 3.5 million times, while a hashtag for MTV's Video Music Awards (#vma) was used nearly 7.5 million times.

The Ferguson developments have helped set Twitter apart from larger social network Facebook. Twitter was awash with news about the strife in Ferguson at the same Facebook was flooded with videos from friends and family participating in the ice-bucket challenge. Some of this was due to Facebook's algorithm, which refines what users see based on what the site believes they prefer to read.

Twitter, by comparison, is an almost uninterrupted flow of raw information.

A Twitter spokeswoman declined to comment. Facebook didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Police officers arrest a demonstrator on Aug. 18 in Ferguson, Mo., next to a sign stating the area is for credentialed press only. Getty Images

Social networks like Twitter and video platforms like Livestream and Ustream together are filling in the gaps left by mainstream media reports, which are edited because of on-air time constraints. "At CNN, they've got one or two channels and limited shelf space," said Ustream's Hunstable. "At any given time we can have a million different channels. There's no limit...We can provide different angles to a story that the mainstream media can't."

But the two forms of news dissemination -- mainstream and live stream -- work best when they work hand in hand, Hunstable said. Livestream's Haot agreed.

"The reason that [Argus] stream went viral was because of its authenticity," Haot said. "But then the spread of that footage was helped by the media itself."

About the author

Ian Sherr is an executive editor for the west coast at CNET News. He writes about social networking and manages coverage of video games, Internet giants, cybersecurity, the sharing economy, e-commerce and wearable tech. Previously, he wrote about Apple, the PC industry and video games at The Wall Street Journal. He's also written for Reuters and the Agence France-Presse, among others. He's a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, though he knows what real weather feels like too.

Joan E. Solsman

Joan E. Solsman is a senior writer for CNET focused on digital media. She previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere in New York City and has been doored only once. See full bio

 

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