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Live Streaming Morality

Today in the public library of quaint suburb of an old American city, images of blissful toddlers were being live streamed to the internet. Parents unwittingly wandered in and out of the shot. Librarians played along politely while trying to work. The cameraman’s friend plastered on a nervous smile and ducked away as much as possible. Men from Great Britain, Australia, and the U.S.A came to watch and to send chat messages to the cameraman in real time. This went on, unnoticed and unsuspected, for 13 minutes.

Why did no-one notice? Because the cameraman wasn’t hoisting a large news camera and microphone boom on a shoulder. The camera being used was smaller than a pack of Twinkies. If people noticed, they assumed the finicky shooter was taking multiple still shots but never managed to make the flash work. Perhaps they thought the cameraman was acting a bit odd talking to the camera at times, but no-one protested, nor was any the wiser.

I was the cameraman. The camera was a Nokia N95, an advanced mini computer, phone and video camera capable of sending live video to websites. It fits in the palm of my hand, yet the video is broadcast-news level quality. Anyone with about $700 to spend can have one. Perhaps if the cameraman was indeed a male, suspicions would arise more easily, but I am as non-threatening as a woman could be, and no-one even thought to notice my actions.

My local public library installed free wifi. I live streamed with it today, using a Nokia N95 and a website/application called Qik. My toddler son and I were in the (mostly vacant) children’s room with my good friend Cathy and her son, as well as the head children’s librarian. “I’m live streaming to the internet right now” was the only ‘warning’ I offered. Not much of a warning at all, of course, because their images were already sent, and were continuing to be sent to qik.com for anyone to see.

I am an ‘early adopter;’ I am eager to test out new technologies like smart phones and laptops, as well as new applications like software and websites. The inevitable bugs and bumps in the start-up road don’t usually bother me. It’s fun and thrilling to watch a tech phenomenon develop, a pursuit I enjoyed at an early age when my brother was a pre-teen hacker back in the late 1970’s.

My stream had no point except to show us passing time at the library. A few of my on-line friends showed up to the chat room, as well as a stranger from half way around the world. It was all purely innocent in intention, I assure you. After I returned home, the unease settled in.

When my son was tucked safely away for his nap, I posted an Utterz discussing how I felt that I was being a bit aggressive by live streaming without prior consent from the characters in the video. I didn’t talk about the hint of nervousness on my friend’s face or how the librarian said that she was ‘freaked out’ by seeing me shoot her while seeing her real-time image on a website, but those things were on my mind when I posted. I feel like I owe them an apology.

How do I avoid this in the future? How can I avoid that “I streamed you even though you didn’t consent” regret I felt today? How do I stream ethically in order to protect community members and myself?

Looking for suggestions, I recorded an Utterz and turned the question to Twitter. Here are some responses (which, again, I’m printing without permission, assuming that it’s kosher to do so):

bear said - anyone streaming live video should be required to wear a bright yellow shirt that reads ON AIR think of live reporting from a demonstration, a plane crash, a war zone, faces in the crowd during a speech -no consent- news folk get in trouble for no consent when kids are involved - maybe this sort of thing also depends on how well you can see the kids and for how long - intrusion vs fleeting -  a hard call  just be like @scobelizer and run up to someone and say

Pishba (Patty Hartwell) continued the conversation via email:

As for little cameras like the N95 that is exactly my point — people have no idea what is actually happening with that little gadget which is why if I had one I’d feel obligated to mention it was live streaming –

Agreed – who wants to piss off their friends, community with something like this — especially since it means they will be much less likely to cotton to live streaming in the future if they feel they have been burned in some way.

Not to mention what it does to your friendship.

ScottSys, replied in Utterz:

Unless you are live streaming in a bathroom with someone, the only thing you risk is boring people to death. There is no expectation of privacy in public and you can record all you want. If on the other hand you specifically record someone else engaged in a conversation they think is private, you need to bone up on your wiretapping laws. News channels do not get a release from everyone.

Michael Bayer replied on Utterz:

Excellent question you raise.
My personal (non legally informed) opinion is that any time you put someone else in the picture, you should ask their permission – particularly if it’s going to be broadcast. Forget the Borat-like issues (were they drunk? were they misled?)…I think it’s just good manners to let someone know what’s going to happen with their image and thoughts. Of course, a video stream (live or recorded) allows you to document the approval, but who wants the question right in their video?

We’ll have to let the courts decide on this one…probably too early to be well tested yet.

Any lawyers out there that want to weigh in on this one?

We are all basically saying here is that it is rude to tape someone in a spy-like manner. Little cameras like the N95 are harder to spot than traditional, shoulder-rest cameras. I liked @bear’s suggestion of wearing some kind of sign, a hat or something, but that won’t be adopted by many end-users as the technology spreads. In 20 years, it will be a non-issue, sure. But we as early adopters have an obligation at the ‘get-go’ to start things off ethically, to set up a tradition of respect.

First we need to start with education. So, a task item, for you dear reader is: Please explain to someone today, if you can, what live streaming is. That’s it. Task item for me: Think up scripts that don’t sound dorky that give fair notice of streaming. Perhaps make business cards that say “you’ve just been streamed, please visit www.thesitenamehere.com/username to see your video” and find a way to hand them out gracefully.

Any other tasks? Comments? Thanks to all who responded to me today!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Dean Whitbread 7 March 2008, 12:05 am

    You raise good questions. But aside from consent from people you don’t know, what about the people you do know, or think you know? The first thing I thought when I saw your video was “how cool, Christine and her kids at the libary” and the second after chatting with people on Qik was “what if I was a sicko and not me?”

    You made a big assumption – that whoever was using my nom-de-net was really the nice person you thought it was, i.e. me. But in fact, it could have been anyone online using that ID and you had no way of checking.

    In the UK we’ve become so obsessed by predatory behaviour towards children that news media often adopt video techniques where they blur or don’t show their faces for privacy reasons which to my eyes, raised on show and tell, looks weird. But I get the point – especially when it comes to school age kids.

    I don’t want to make you paranoid – but I am always careful not to show my family for these kind of reasons. The other point to make is that you make yourself and your family vulnerable by live streaming and it’s a tough call where to draw the line as we invite people into our intimate lives.

  • Otir 7 March 2008, 12:37 am

    Your questions raised other questions to me. I listened to your Utterz and since I didn’t know how to comment there, I swallowed my immediate reaction, but now I remember that it was about your mentioning of the cameraman’s freedom of expression.

    I think and have noticed that culturally in the United States people tend to think in legal terms first (see also Michael Bayer’s comment “Any lawyers out there that want to weigh in on this one?” when I don’t see why we should necessarily base all our behaviors on a legal stand and point of view. Freedom of speech, or freedom of expression seem to ring the bell of arrogant rights and no duties at all.

    In my opinion, freedom is a responsibility. It has to guarantee the freedom of our neighbor as well. Their freedom to not be scrutinized or submitted to unknown scrutinity they cannot interact with. After all, the live-streamer may chose to interact with his or her viewers, not necessarily the persons that are – accidentally or incidentally – broadcasted along.

    And now the next question that came to my mind was about the motivation that people who livestream have to do so: what is the mechanism at play? what is the essence of the pleasure or thrill that is arisen by this? Would it come from a fantasy that anyway “someone” is always watching upon us and we would like to try and figure out what it “looks like” from that unknown someone’s perspective?

  • Starman 7 March 2008, 12:53 am

    You raise a very valid point, especially since in this day and age where everyone is wired, there’s no telling when you can be on camera.

    With kids specifically, I feel that they have to be protected. I might be overprotective towards kids but that might be the media’s fault for creating an air of fear towards kids. Still, there are some rather terrible people in the world.

    Then there’s another issue about recording in a public area. It’s public, are you required to ask everyone in a park for consent? What about still pictures where people are going to be in the background or on the sides of the frame?

    I don’t think anyone would question that the intent was malicious, so I think that for now, nothing can come of it.

  • PurpleCar 7 March 2008, 5:06 pm

    Banannie has this to say on Utterz:


    “I’m pretty sure news orgs don’t need informed consent. But I know what you mean and have thought about it. I put a label on my Flip camera that says “Contents may be Youtubed”, since everyone knows what youtube is, but I really mean internet in general. It’s not an ideal solution to be sure! I’ve held back from posting images of other people without their consent- in fact at Christmas I took video of my family but had to leave out my brother’s kids at his request when I posted the edited vid to my blog.
    I guess the answer is simply to be courteous and make it clear before you start recording that it will be streamed live, and what that means. I think most people (at least adults) will be fine with it.”

  • Mari Adkins 7 March 2008, 5:36 pm

    News organizations needs consent from anyone who’s face appears on screen / in a photograph. Now, I learned this in high school and college journalism. Things may have changed – this was twenty years ago. :blush:

    I like Banannie’s “YouTube” sticker – what a great idea!

  • Attitude 10 March 2008, 9:32 am

    Thanks for this discussion. For the purpose of my remarks here I would like to define “average” as a random sample of people from the culture where actions occur.

    Whether or not we “can,” is rarely as compelling social prerogative than what may be expected by average persons within the context of current culture. Would average persons view as courteous my action in the situation? How considerate of the actors would average persons deem my actions?

    Perhaps a good question to ask ourselves is could we defend our decision in the presence of a jury of our peers (a group of citizens who live in the county in which the act occurred) under cross-examination in a court of law?

    While the safe way is rarely progressive, progress must pace itself to consider the social impact and individual rights. If you realized one day you were Truman from the movie of the same name, how would you feel? Where is the line? What are people’s privacy needs? Are they in witness protection? Are they hoping a perpetrator doesn’t find out where they now live? Are there religious or psychological or other factors that might be in play that would prevent someone from granting consent to have their identities published?

    This area I am sure will be a process of learning for all of us. I look forward to more on the subject, and Christine, I would particularly appreciate your thoughts after all these comments. Thank you for a situation in which I think most of us reading your blog, or who follow you on Twitter, or chat with you on Seesmic could imagine finding ourselves.

  • Forrest 11 March 2008, 1:39 am

    Is “privacy” a dichotomy? Is there locker room privacy, and then everything else is public?

    I don’t expect locker room privacy at a public library. I don’t expect library-level intimacy at a sporting event.

    Having an audience is SUPPOSED to make us think about them,
    and alter our presentation based on the audience. This is to give them a TRUER communication, not a distorted one.

    Ask a politician a question, and they know they will be quoted. They choose carefully.

    People stepping out of limos onto red carpets aren’t careless about their presentation.

    Actors are well-rehearsed when they step into the footlights.

    “Do you love me?” and “Is this flattering?” get edited responses, tailored for an audience of one.

    Yes, there are people that have a facade they need to maintain. But let’s don’t be cynical and say it is only that, or mostly those people who alter their presentation.

    Our family went to a lecture yesterday, and I think a photog blew 20-50 frames on crowd shots standing 5 feet away from us. (And maybe 200 frames total during the lecture.) I wasn’t paying much attention to her, so I don’t know how many shots were of our cute kids. My wife says there were many.

    She didn’t display a press credential, even though she obviously had some kind of special permission to be shooting in the space in the museum where there was artwork on the walls. (We got tagged by a docent for taking a flash shot on a stupid stairway! Never can be too careful about UV damage on a wooden handrail, I guess.)

    After the lecture, we asked if she was press. She said she was museum staff. She took no notes on our identities, and I do not recall any plausible consent to use of our likenesses. (It was free admission, so what contract did we enter?) So from her answer, the potential audience was probably the staff bulletin board or museum newsletter.

    She could have been lying, but that would be a separate ethical question. Based on her response we had an idea
    of audience and figured it was no big deal.

    But is it ethical to publish the likeness of someone without their knowledge or consent to an unknown audience of unknown size of unknown longevity? How do you give someone knowledge of audience, size, longevity when you have no idea yourself? (As in the case of live streaming.)

    The time is coming (soon!) when we will be able to google people’s faces across the web. We will be able to upload a snapshot instead of typing in search terms, and we’ll get back all the videos and pictures of that person — from even _before_ they were elected mayor!

    I can’t think of any legitimate purpose for that ability. I can think of plenty of questionable and some disturbing ways some people would try to use that.

    99.9999% of what is streamed live is too boring to attract an audience. But that .0001% that does attract an audience will be our moments that are superlative in some way: either best or worst.

    I’m generally a good person, with few skeletons. But I’ve had my moments, in public even. If you sound-bite those moments and they get watched, while the banality that is the rest of my life does not get watched, it certainly isn’t balanced, so cannot be accurate, so can it be right? What is facade and what is true?

    “Act completely natural” (as in “beige”, the non-attractive color) isn’t so easy when you know your kid’s superlative behavior at that moment really needs something with more “oomph” than beige.

    Having an audience is SUPPOSED to make us think about them.
    In everyday life, I’d rather not. Who is this Internet anyway, that they so easily and non-challantly intrude on the highest levels of self-awareness about how I carry myself, potentially looking over my shoulder 24/7?

    Here’s my never humble opinionated take on your feelings of regret….

    You violated a trust of library-level intimacy. Your penalty is to feel separated. Continue and carry this too far, you will be abandoned to yourself, and will be able to live stream all the empty rooms you care to.

    I don’t believe what people say about “in 20 years” blah blah blah. Intimacy and trust are not optional in relationships. Abandon them and you don’t get changed relationships, you get NO relationships.

    In the meantime, maybe you can wear a press credential. Then people will know when you are incapable of sharing their life, and instead are sharing their facade with random strangers.