koven 8:22 AM
Hey, is Evan’s perspectives talk today? We should Meerkat it if so.

Those two sentences sent on Slack from Koven Smith, the Blanton’s Director of Digital Adaptation, set off a frantic 4 hours on what had been a normal work day in March. With the launch of Meerkat, a live-streaming video service through your phone, the online world was abuzz about this new piece of technology that had been developed in only eight weeks. Meerkat had taken South by Southwest by storm here in Austin a week before, so it seemed only natural to see if it would work as a way to broadcast tours given in our galleries. Shortly after I received the message from Koven, we discovered that Periscope, Twitter’s similar-but-different live streaming app, had launched that very morning. An embarrassment of streaming riches! Which app should we use?

The answer was obvious: we would stream assistant curator Evan Garza’s talk on Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties on both apps simultaneously. Boom.

Meerkat (L) and Periscope (R) during live broadcasts. Photo via The Guardian

Meerkat (L) and Periscope (R) during live broadcasts. Photo via The Guardian

Koven and I spent the morning playing around with each app and testing our (private) WiFi strength in the galleries. Our first attempts at broadcasting inside of Witness went well, without any connectivity issues. When we moved back to Koven’s office to test the desktop versions of each app, we discovered that commenting in Meerkat, currently, is tied to twitter—anything you say in a comment while watching a live-stream is sent to your twitter account, while Periscope’s comments function only within the app without being published elsewhere (for now). During the course of our testing, Koven and I made a new friend through Periscope—@bizpaul, who stumbled on our broadcast by accident, became enamored with Koven’s Ray Bans, and helped us try out a few features from across the pond. Thanks, Paul!

Koven: This was some pretty seat-of-our-pants testing, since the only way we could really test the two apps was just to stream them live and hope that not too many people were watching us. However, Periscope was so new at that point that a bunch of people were just watching any and all streams coming across the wire, including our test. This meant people were tuning in to experience Alie and I saying things like, “hey, see what happens when you landscape-orient the camera,” or “there seems to be about a five-second delay between the desktop stream and the stream on the app.” Thrills! This testing was really important, though, because it did help us to figure out that the two apps treat camera orientation differently, which I don’t think we would have known otherwise.

Once we committed to broadcasting Evan’s talk to our (hopefully present) audience, we needed to figure out logistics. Koven was Team Meerkat, while I manned the helm of Periscope—each of us would broadcast from our respective apps at the same time, delivering the same content but through different platforms. After talking to Evan and making sure he was okay with his tour being broadcast to millions hundreds a handful of internet strangers, away we went to the galleries, hoping that our experiment more or less worked the way we had hoped.

Long story short: it did.

Periscope

Periscope’s post-stream analytics

Both apps broadcasted the entire 47 minute tour without any hiccups in network connectivity. After some (kind of aggressive) outreach on my part to fellow museum social media and tech people, we ended up with roughly 10 viewers on Meerkat, and 5 on Periscope, with the latter giving a clean analytics breakdown of retention rate, total viewers, time watched, and duration.

Here’s what we learned:

  • Holding an iPhone to your chest for 45 minutes while trying to keep the feed steady leaves your arms feeling like you just powerlifted in the Olympics. If you’re planning to broadcast something as long as a tour or a talk, it would be wise to invest in a tripod or have someone on hand to take over when your arms inevitably fail you.
  • It was difficult to film the tour without being disturbing/distracting to the real bodies standing next to you. To get a clear shot, I had to stand close to Evan, but that often meant blocking someone’s view of the art. I also waited until the tour had moved on to another artwork before zooming in for detail shots, which was a bit of an inconvenience for online viewers. Evan has a great speaking voice, but if you have a quieter lecturer, you’ll need to move in closer to get clear audio—which would probably be even more annoying for your real-life tour companions.
  • Text commenting in Periscope was non-existent. As the broadcaster, I had no way to interact with my viewers outside of speaking directly to them through the phone, which I tried to do in whispers between stops on the tour. Meerkat allows the person filming to type comments back to their audience (which, FYI, also post on Twitter), which I would have appreciated. Based on feedback from our viewers, it seemed that people liked the comments on Meerkat better—they remained on the screen so you could scroll back through them, while Periscope’s disappeared if you happened to look away for a second, with no way to see them again.

Koven: I found that I don’t really have a good eye for framing a shot in real-time; I was constantly settling for shots that had both Evan and the artwork he was discussing in them instead of something a little more dynamic. For all its informality, I did feel that a skilled cinematographer could really make this format sing in a way that I couldn’t. I did really enjoy the text commenting in Meerkat; I was able to respond in real time to people commenting on the stream (though I think my video got a little shaky while I was trying to thumb-type on my phone).

Meerkat

Screenshot from our Meerkat stream, with my hands and Periscope in the foreground—so meta! Photo via Chris Alexander.

One thing that I did wonder as we were filming in the galleries: was our filming sending a conflicting message to our visitors, since visitor photography is not allowed in Witness? When visitors walk up to the front desk, they’re shown two separate signs that say photography is prohibited in Witness; when they get to the exhibition entrance, there is another stanchion with the same message, followed by yet another placard as they pass through the entrance with a red X over a camera image. Was it frustrating for tour participants to see staff members filming the tour when they couldn’t take out their phones to snap a photo of the artwork? Full disclosure: if I was the visitor, I would have been annoyed. Even though the allowance of photography within the exhibition was out of our hands, I have to wonder whether efforts to bring the show to a wider audience through live-streaming risks alienating the visitors we already have.

Koven: This was definitely problematic, and I’ll be honest that this dissonance between our “no photos” policy and having two staff members stand there with camera phones was not clear to me until Mary Myers, who is responsible for most of the Blanton’s amazing video work pointed it out. This is where the lo-fi nature of both Meerkat and Periscope worked to our disadvantage–if Alie and I were both using big official-looking cameras rather than our camera phones, this dissonance wouldn’t have been as egregious.

Overall, though, both apps did exactly what they advertised: delivered live-streaming to people around the world with very little setup on the broadcaster’s end. For organizations with few staff resources and a little (or non-existent) budget, I can see both apps being invaluable to creating content without a lot of overhead.

Koven: Personally, I think if we were to do this again (which is almost certain), we would probably schedule a special gallery talk just for live streaming, where it would be easier to control for variables like sound and positioning. There was also something strangely intimate about both apps, and I think doing a live stream while the Museum is closed would accentuate this intimacy even more. I also had several people watching the Meerkat stream ask me (via comments) to move closer to a particular artwork, or to zoom in on details. This sort of thing would be much easier to do if I didn’t have to stay out of the way of other visitors.

So: team Meerkat or team Periscope? Further efforts will probably tell us more, but from our initial test I have to go with Periscope: commenting features aside, museum colleagues reported that it worked seamlessly on desktop and mobile, the user interface was cleaner than Meerkat, and it has the weight of Twitter to help it improve now that it’s out in the real world. However, changes are coming to both apps now that Meerkat raised an initial round of funding, so don’t count out this startup just yet. It will be interesting to see how museums use this new technology to bring their programs to a wider audience—and which app they’ll use to do it.

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