A few weeks ago, in the middle of Zuccotti Park 21-year-old Victoria Sobel set up a webcam on her refurbished laptop or “hackintosh,” as she called it, and logged into Livestream.com. Looking into the camera she called out to viewers watching all over the world, “Hi Livestream, are we live?”
A string of messages from people watching Sobel filled the screen. They wrote questions to her.
“Someone is asking if there’s a march today?” she said to me and then looked back into the camera to talk to viewers and answer the question. “I’m going to take you to the calendar board so we’ll find out. And I’m going to take a walk around the park.”
The Occupy Wall Street livestream feed and its offshoots in other cities are changing the way in which thousands of people around the world have viewed the protests – live and unedited.
Here’s how it happened. Protesters in Zuccotti Park in September wanted to get the word out. They set up a free Livestream account and began broadcasting. Initially not many people tuned in but then stuff started happening, like the arrests during the march across the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1. Suddenly, there were hundreds of people going to Livestream.com to watch what was happening.
All this attention has caused a big bump for the company Livestream.com, but with odd consequences. Back in September, when the occupiers first set up their free channel, viewers sympathetic to the movement complained – loudly. As they watched the movement unfold, they were subjected to advertisements. The concept “Live from Zuccotti Park brought to you by TMobile, Hyundai, or Toshiba,” didn’t sit so well with Occupy supporters.
Turns out advertisers didn’t like it so much either. Barely aware of the movement, Livestream CEO Max Haot started receiving concerned calls from his advertisers. “We got an interesting scenario where some of the brands that advertise on livestream channels are obviously not comfortable in being associated with that content,” said Haot.
So what did Haot do? He left the company’s headquarters on 14th Street in Manhattan and went downtown to Zuccotti Park to meet with protesters and they came up with a solution. “Because of the controversial nature of it [Occupy Wall Street],” said Haot, “we are not inserting adverts and not really monetizing and not making revenue. But neither are we censoring the content and shutting them down because we can’t make a buck.”
No more ads, no more revenue. But while Livestream.com may not being raking it in financially from Occupy channels, it has gained something much more –- street cred. There are now over 80 occupy livestream channels streaming to over 11 million viewers.
“For us it’s a wild ride in terms of establishing ourselves as a leader in livestream and livestreaming really becoming a verb in the American and global psyche” said Haot. “It’s what it is — it’s livestream, and we are Livestream.”
It’s true, said Eli Goodman an Internet analytics and marketing expert at comScore: traffic to Livestream.com has seen an Occupy Wall Street bump. But permeating the American psyche, well, that remains to be seen.
“Is it Kleenex? Is it Band-Aid?” said Goodman. “‘Live streaming’ wasn’t some new word that was made up. But certainly tapping into something [in] the way that people talk about [it] and just naming yourselves that – Great idea!”
Funny enough, the company originally had a different name — Mogulus. As in, “anyone can become a media mogul,” said Haot. His first experience in consumer branding was an exercise in trial and error. “As part of a start-up you realize that you make mistakes and you make right choices. Re-branding to Livestream was probably one of our best decisions since then,” he said.
However just being a household name doesn’t necessarily determine success. Livestream.com is not the only video streaming site. Other brands like Ustream are also gaining ground in the marketplace sprouting from the Occupy movement.
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Nina Porzucki on Wednesday, Oct. 19th
In midst of the frenzy at Zuccotti Park, under a giant pink umbrella, a small group of Occupy Wall Street protesters hover over laptops surrounded by mounds of equipment covered in blue tarps. A beaten up cardboard sign rests at their feet, the word “media” written in Magic Marker. This is the Occupy Wall Street media headquarters.
Colin Laws is a 19-year-old here from Connecticut who came to OWS to help the media team. “We got people that monitor social media such as Twitter and Facebook, people that monitor the news, people that Livestream,” he said. “That’s a huge thing, actually, because that’s how get a lot of our news out to our followers.”
A week ago, Laws was one of those Livestream followers, watching the streaming video of Zucotti park over the internet. And then after weeks of just watching the Global Revolution Livestream channel, he sold his TV and all of his video games and bought a bus ticket to New York.
Hero Vincent – yes, that’s his name – is a protester-turned Livestream broadcaster-turned icon. In a Livestream clip from last Friday, right after the city announced it would not evacuate the protesters to clean the park, Hero V announced the victory, saying “We are at a beautiful moment right now. There’s thousands of people out here as you can see. We’re all standing in solidarity. I’m losing my voice again unfortunately.”
If the live stream has news anchors, he’s it. But “news anchor” is not his formal role. There are no formal roles or any formal schedule. The OWS Media is as loose as the protest itself. Hero, for instance, said, it “just happened” that he became the channel’s anchor. “Like, I’m comfortable in front of the camera. ‘Cuz I’m a performer, so like, getting in front of the camera trying to inspire people to do stuff is just who I am.”
Hero’s got the looks for TV as well; tall and lanky with big brown eyes and a quick smile. Still, even he seems surprised by his sudden celebrity. “This guy walks up to me and is like, are you Hero? And he says, ‘Man, I saw your video. The only reason I’m here today is because I saw your video.’ And he’s like, ‘Thank you, can I take a picture of you?,” he laughed.
Another anchor, Vincent, never wanted to be a journalist, if that’s what he is. His Livestream fame is just a byproduct of what he really came down on day one to talk about. “You know, like my family has been foreclosed on. My father’s been unemployed for a couple years now. My sister’s in school with high tuition. It’s just been a long time coming,” he said. “We’ve been working hard. I’ve been working since I was 14 just to help my parents put food on the table. So it was inevitable for me to be here.”
But for other members of the Occupy Wall Street press corps, this may jumpstart another career in, well, media. Luke Richardson works on the live stream, shooting film, charging batteries, guarding the equipment; tasks he says are distributed across the team.
When I asked about his prior experience, he said he was a waiter. Four days into protesting, he quit his job. We didn’t get into the ironies of quitting work to protest unemployment. Richardson said this might be career advancement, just, in a career he had never considered before. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot. How I could parlay this into some way to sustain myself? Because I do have bills to pay. And I love this and I want to keep doing it,” he said.
Richardson is not alone. Several members of the media team, from an antique dealer to an English Master’s student, are suddenly reconsidering their future careers. Colin Laws, the kid who sold his TV to pay his way to New York, didn’t only leave Connecticut because of Hero Vincent.
“Another reason I wanted to get down here was because I’m looking to become a journalist,” he said “and I was going to go to school for it but this was going on. And I did not want to wait.”
Not only has the Occupy Wall Street movement spread from city to city, Livestreaming has caught on around the world, too. You can now watch demonstrations live from Los Angeles to London.
This story also aired on NPR’s All Things Considered.
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