panem et circenses: the dangerous narcissism of spectacle
Lately, live streaming has been having a moment. From Twitter's $1-million-per-game deal with the NFL to YouTube's live coverage of everything from Coachella to the presidential debates, instant video is the social media trend du jour. Just last week, 1.2 million people watched simultaneously as April the giraffe, something of an internet sensation, gave birth. With over 232 million live views and 7.6 billion minutes of live watch time total, it was the second most live-viewed channel in the history of YouTube.
While apps like Periscope and Meerkat were pioneers in the industry, most of the top social media platforms have added live streaming capabilities to their product offerings, giving users the power to broadcast their every move with the touch of a button.
From Mark Zuckerberg's joyous Facebook Live announcement back in April 2016:
Today we're launching Facebook Live for everyone—to make it easier to create, share and discover live videos.Live is like having a TV camera in your pocket. Anyone with a phone now has the power to broadcast to anyone in the world. When you interact live, you feel connected in a more personal way. This is a big shift in how we communicate, and it's going to create new opportunities for people to come together.
One sentence jumps out in particular. Anyone with a phone now has the power to broadcast to anyone in the world. What Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, et al. have accomplished is the democratization of mass media. The world is now more connected than ever. Live streaming is personal, unfiltered; it allows content creators to interact directly with their audience and appear multidimensional (see: parasocial interaction). But when powerful media messaging and a captive audience are a virtual free-for-all, there are consequences. And in an era obsessed with oversharing, this kind of freedom may not be a good thing.
With the introduction of Facebook Live, for every rocket launch and tech unveiling, we have witnessed a number of deeply distressing episodes of live streaming: hate crimes against the mentally disabled, suicides, gang rapes, and most recently, the confession of a senseless shooting of an elderly man. All of these are evocative of the ugliest parts of humanity, the darkest parts, and of our capacity for cruelty. But it's also indicative of another problem: the gratification of spectacle.
A spectacle is not simply neutral like an experience or a phenomenon. It is not something to be observed solely for its existence; it is something to be witnessed, something to behold. It demands your attention. It is, essentially, a performance for an audience.
Live streaming fosters a dangerous culture of narcissism and showmanship, one that rests on the assumption that our day-to-day lives are worth watching, every hour of every day. It initiates a vicious cycle of consumption and social validation, echoing satirical Roman poet Juvenal's "bread and circuses" theory: that the key to controlling a populace is to keep them well-fed and entertained. This sentiment is expressed in the dystopian universe of The Hunger Games, aptly named "Panem," from the Latin translation of the phrase, panem et circenses.
What the theory criticizes is entertainment value itself: that a lighthearted exterior can distract from or even mask darker, much more sinister things. The danger of spectacle is that so often it becomes about the validation of performance rather than what's actually happening: suicide for show, cruelty for sport, violence for the sake of attention. Historically, we see this in public displays like Roman gladiator fights, French executions by guillotine, and the Salem Witch Trials. But while live streaming was a tool introduced with the intention of strengthening social connection, it actually creates a distance between spectacle and reality.
With the desensitization of murder, violence, and suicide comes the risk of something called "suicide contagion"—copycats. The clinical director of a suicide prevention center explains:
Imagine an adolescent feeling emotionally lost, almost invisible, and witnessing the notoriety or memorialization of a teen who completed suicide, gaining attention in their immediate community as well as the vast amount of attention obtained from social media. This is the essence of contagion. Live streamed suicide has significant negative impact on the family, the teens viewing the live stream, the community and anyone who is having suicidal thoughts.
The allure of spectacle is that it has little regard for practical consequences. And for a someone depressed and seeking refuge from the real world, it may appear a glamorous option. But as a concerning number of live streamed suicides indicates, this kind of narcissism, one that assumes you are entitled to public attention, is not only self-indulgent but actually a potential public health crisis. Live streaming does not simply exhibit spectacle; it creates it.
Even worse is the glorification of harm toward others. Live streaming gives people a platform for vanity and sociopathy; it allows the freedom to broadcast damaging, unfiltered content or dangerous rhetoric, and sends the message that just because you have something to say that it should be heard. It gives people obsessed with spectacle exactly what they want: the notoriety (re: the Isla Vista shooting back in 2014). The shock value is why we know the perpetrators' names before we know the victims'.
In the video, the Cleveland shooter directly addresses his audience: "[He's] dead ’cause of you," perhaps a Black Mirror-esque critique of our addiction to technology. But the point is that this should not be available for public analysis in the first place.
Censorship and free speech are always a tricky topic when discussed in the context of one another, in many cases because with rapidly developing methods of communication and social connection, there is simply no precedent in existence to adequately define either one. The Wikipedia page for "live streaming crimes" states that, "legal systems lack tools to protect the privacy of the victims of these crimes." And in response to the Cleveland shooting, Facebook clarified that it removes content only "if it celebrates or glorifies violence," a policy which allows graphic and disturbing material to remain public and circulate.
Now companies face a multitude of choices. They can limit the sharing of live videos, restrict the feature to verified users, or remove the capability for the platform. But given the amount of money and resources invested in the development of live streaming, it is highly unlikely that they will do any of these things. It may be too late to retract this technology now that it's out there, especially in a world locked in a technological arms race to avoid obsolescence. But stricter policing and further censorship is not necessarily a practical solution, nor does it address the root of the problem.
One thing is clear: the argument that live streaming reflects real life is not a valid one. And the more we fail to distinguish spectacle from reality, the greater the risks become of actually causing these problems rather than merely confirming them.
Would these incidents happen if live video didn't exist? Possibly. But do the people committing them deserve this kind of attention? No.
And given that the only real benefit of live streaming is the artificial mimicry of social connection, companies should consider it their ethical responsibility to weigh the risks against the rewards.