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Livestreaming Dances Awkwardly Between The Horrifying And Absurd

We now know what type of videos "go big" on social livestreams.

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Takedown of the #TrumpTower climber as seen from @ShepNewsTeam's Facebook Live.

On Wednesday afternoon, a man with four suction cups, a harness, and some rope began scaling Trump Tower in an attempt to meet with its proprietor.

Though the climber failed to get a personal audience with Donald Trump, he did succeed in creating another huge social livestreaming moment — a predictably successful one.

Social livestreaming is still in its infancy, but it’s quickly becoming clear that the videos that “go big” largely fall into two distinct categories: the horrifying and the absurd (with an element of suspense). Periscope is a little more than a year old, and Facebook Live a little less, and so far the streams that have captured the public’s attention seem to pendulum between death and baffling spectacle.

The Trump Tower climber was perhaps the perfect example of the latter. Full of absurdity (a man with suction cups was climbing a New York City skyscraper) and suspense (would he get apprehended? Or fall? Or unfurl a banner with a political message?), it’s no wonder its social livestreams did record numbers. CNN said the video was its most watched on Facebook Live, with over 5 million viewers.

Yeah, but how much did Facebook pay that climber so all these media outlets could live stream it?

An amateur Periscope broadcast of the incident reached over 200,000 concurrent viewers, a whopping number. And though Periscope won’t say whether that was its largest broadcast ever, a spokesperson said that around 25% of those who watched it stuck around the full stream. The stream lasted over an hour.

When you look back through social livestream history, you find more of the same. There was BuzzFeed’s exploding watermelon, an absurd and suspenseful video. And the #NoBillNoBreak congressional sit-in, which, while deeply serious, was also remarkable for the surprising and unexpected nature of a large gathering of politicians livestreaming their own sit-in. Indeed, when C-SPAN started airing Periscope and Facebook Live footage from the house floor, the moment became a watermark event for both platforms.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the horrifying. Social streams of shootings in the United States — such as aftermath of the police shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota, Micah Johnson’s rampage against police in Dallas, and more — and the scenes of terrorist attacks in France, Belgium, Turkey, and elsewhere have struck a chord. They’ve been watched by many, incorporated into traditional media broadcasts, and turned social livestreaming into part of the story. For some, it’s become instinct to go live from the heart of devastation. Indeed, Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, did so right after her boyfriend was shot by a patrol officer.

Outside of these circumstances, little seems to move the needle for social livestreams. Yes, there was Chewbacca Mom. But that video was largely an outlier. Nothing has come close to its popularity, and the format (person in car laughing uncontrollably while wearing a grunting Star Wars mask) hasn’t proven itself as something that works for repeatable success.

But the fact that patterns are emerging at all bodes well for the future of social livestreaming, since they mean success (at least as far as the numbers look) should be repeatable. There will always be absurd things to stream, and, even more assuredly, there will always be horror. So yes, get ready for the format to stick around, even though you might get a bit of whiplash moving back and forth between its specialties.

Disclosure: BuzzFeed is a Facebook Live paid partner.

Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.

Contact Alex Kantrowitz at alex.kantrowitz@buzzfeed.com.

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