Nathan B. Grant is an Occupy-focused Ustreamer who has been streaming since the days of the Occupy Wall Street encampment. You can view his channel at ustream.tv/OccupyEye and you can follow him on Twitter via the handle @OccupyEye (https://twitter.com/#!/OccupyEye)
I joined Occupy Wall Street in October, expecting to stay only a week and learn a little more about the plethora of political and economic grievances on display in Zuccotti Park. I probably would have left after my seven day self-imposed deadline if a woman had not randomly introduced me to the Livestream team on my third or fourth day in the park. Almost nine months later, I’m still with the movement full-time, streaming live audio/video every chance I get.
I had heard of livestream before I entered the park, but I had never really been one to view a stream while sitting at home. After only a couple days working with the OccupyWallStNYC media team, though, I began to see the immense importance of this new journalistic avenue. We’ll get into that discussion a little later but first, let me tell you about the technology itself.
“Livestream,” in essence, is a medium that allows a cameraman or citizen journalist to send live video and audio to the internet for computer, mobile phone, or tablet users to watch live wherever they may be. There are a few different methods and platforms from which one can livestream.
The first is via Livestream.com. To use this platform, you can go to the site and download the Livestream ProCaster. There is no mobile application for, say, a smartphone that one can use to stream from when it comes to Livestream. Instead, you’ll be moving in the streets holding a laptop with a webcam and microphone attached to it. It’s a little cumbersome, but you can get a higher quality feed than other live-media platforms. Also, if you can dig up a camcorder that has a firewire port, you can stream in High Definition. However, unless you’re an incredible multi-tasker, you would need a partner or two to help run the stream; one to monitor the feed via the laptop, and one to run the camera. If the media team has enough members and gear and can send several different “stream teams” out, Livestream.com also has a Studio program that allows someone back at home base to monitor the different feeds at once and switch between which is broadcasting live to the channel. What I am basically getting at is if you have the time, money, and people, Livestream.com is a very, very powerful tool. The price of this is that it is much less accessible to newcomers and requires a moderate knowledge of computing and visual media.
Most Occupy livestreamers, including myself, go with Ustream.tv as their main platform, the reason being it is much cheaper and more mobile than any other kind of platform. Ustream does offer a Desktop Producer program, but you’ll see most Occupy streamers using either an iPhone or Android phone as their camera. To use Ustream, all anyone has to do is download the Ustream application to their smartphone, and they’re basically ready to go from there. As long as they have an internet connection, they can create a channel and begin streaming with the press of a few touchscreen buttons.
I’ve been using Ustream since December of last year, and if you want to become a more serious Ustreamer, there is additional equipment you need to pick up. When it comes to the best phones suited for streaming, the iPhone 4S is hands down the best phone so far for streaming to Ustream. However, if you want to go the cheaper Android route, the Galaxy Samsung S2 is a close second, and by now costs a third of what an iPhone 4S costs.
When it comes to one’s connection to the internet, it is entirely feasible to use the phones built in 3G or 4G access. However, these tend to be very slow. The slower one’s connection to the internet, the lower the picture quality while streaming. This can be overcome by buying an internet hotspot. All cell-carriers sell their version of a hotspot, and they all have varying rates of connection depending on the area within one wants to stream. Research should be done on which hotspot delivers the fastest connection in their locale before heading to the store and picking one up. The problem in going with AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc, is these carriers have data caps- that is, after using 5 or 10 GB of data, you begin to get charged per GB in overage. As a full-time streamer, I stream 30-40 GB a month, and that could lead to huge costs per billing cycle.
As a result, most streamers go with Clear hotspots. They can be picked up at Best Buy for about $100, and deliver unlimited data services for $50 a month. For the most part, they only work in large cities, but they ought to get more flexible as the network grows within the next few years.
The last of a streamer’s equipment needs are external lithium ion batteries. The internal battery of a phone usually lasts for about 1.5 to 2 hours of streaming before dying. The same goes for a hotspot battery. To stream for longer periods, a streamer has to pick up external power. I use Energizer XPAL 18000 lithium ion batteries due to the sheer size of mAH (milli-amp hours) they hold. Meant to charge a laptop, they have 18000 mAH. To put that in perspective, an iPhone battery has about 1500 mAH, therefore one of these XPAL batteries will recharge a smartphone from 0%-100% over 10 times before needing a recharge. I carry two of these batteries; one for my iPhone, and another for my hotspot. The longest period I’ve ever streamed for was about 14 hours straight on February 4th, 2012 during the raid on the Washington DC encampment. Afterwards, both of my external batteries had over 50% charge left. Go with the XPAL if you never want to worry about having enough charge while streaming. They cost about $150 each.
Lastly, start a Twitter account! Ustream links up with Twitter so you can send tweets out via the Ustream application while streaming. It is very useful in getting viewers to your stream, and if you do it right, you can begin to build a following. Myself, I actually carry a second smartphone on me so I can tweet pictures out while streaming. It’s difficult to split your focus between two phones at once, but if you get the hang of it, the Twitter community will love you for it. Remember to always tweet out the link to your stream so folks who see your tweets know where to go to watch live.
If you want, you can pick up an extendable mono-pod and camera mount to get an overhead view in a crowd. Personally, I don’t use one because it cuts down on the mobility that you have in holding the camera by hand. Always bring along extra cables, and besides that, those are all one needs to begin streaming via Ustream. Unfortunately, streaming is not as simple as going out to a protest and clicking record. Having done this for a while now, I’ve come upon some streaming theory that I will impart on you here.
The first, and most broken rule I see amongst other streamers, is you must remember that you are HOLDING A CAMERA that is ALWAYS RECORDING. When you are done streaming, the video you shot is saved in an archive. It is not like a camcorder where you take shots here and there during an event. People are watching your stream live, and if you take your focus off the picture at any time, your stream will suffer for it, and you will lose viewers. I see too many streamers who just hold their phone at chest level and walk around, rather than focusing on shot composition at least 90% of the time. It takes a lot of focus and energy, and staring at a phone screen for a few hours straight can make you feel kind of detached from the action after a bit. But if you do it a lot, your stream will be, in terms of quality, head and shoulders above many others who have been at the game for a while now. You are a photographer as much as you are a reporter; show the viewers that you understand this.
Second, there is, sometimes heated, debate on whether or not one should stream an illegal action taken by a protester. This is a question for streamers to decide for themselves, though they should definitely feel free to discuss it with others. Personally, I feel that, as a citizen journalist, I have the responsibility to protect my sources. If I see an illegal action, like chalking where one should not be, I’ll bring the camera in very close to the pavement and film the messages being written and do my very best to keep faces out of the shot until the deed is done. If you go ahead and decide to stream those who partake in illegal actions, be very prepared to defend your stance as you may be confronted by those who are more radical in the movement. You must pick a side on this particular issue before you ever start streaming. It could very well come up the first time you ever hit record.
Third, network network network. You are in media now. Speak with other livestreamers and twitterers. Tell them about yourself and learn about them. Other people with large twitter accounts or large viewerships can help get your name out there if they decide you are made of the real stuff. The best streamers can and will rise above the rest. Just network, and be very, very patient. The first couple of months for my current channel saw a very, very slow growth. But people take notice, and you will gain a following.
Which brings me to my next point; your online following is one of your greatest resources. Streamers continue to stream via donations. It costs money for new equipment and it costs money to pay that monthly mobile internet bill. Treat your people kindly and set up a WePay account so those who see something in you can donate. Don’t pester too often for it, and it takes some time for it to come about. More importantly, though, interacting regularly with your following and your viewers in turn brings them back regularly. Say hello to the stream when a familiar screen name pops into the chat. If they ask questions, answer them to the best of your ability during the downtime in a protest. When you are comfortable with a few specific viewers, make them moderators of the chat. Viewers deserve to be rewarded if they spend a lot of time with you; you are nothing without them. So do your best to take care of them. I have several die-hard viewers who have been with me for over six months now. I consider them my team, and they help me get out there every day to continue streaming. Do yourself the greatest of favors, and do not waste this resource/camaraderie.
I hear somewhat often that livestream is “unbiased journalism.” I used to believe that myself for a time, but it is not true. It does not take away from the value of your stream, but being honest with yourself will help you grow as a journalist in the streets, and this is the first hurdle. For example, if you are pro-Occupy, and an ugly argument breaks out between two protesters near you while on the other side of them, someone is being arrested, which of these two scenarios would you stream? You would likely stream the arrest- your footage may be used in court and could help the arrestee get off on their charges. I have done this myself before, and nothing feels better than knowing your footage helped keep someone from time in the slammer, or from paying a steep fine. Acknowledge your bias, and try to run against it sometimes. I have, in fact, streamed arguments during the time of the Washington DC encampment. This footage can be important for the movement, as painful as it is to put out into the internet for all to see. You can stream the deescalation process for others to learn from, or just show that sometimes, the movement can get ugly. It is a natural thing when lots of people spend lots of time together in a space. Streaming this can make the movement feel all the more human to those who view. The point is, always think about what you are streaming and why you are doing it, then explain yourself to your viewers. Everyone, including yourself, can learn from these kinds of experiences.
Livestream is a powerful, new tool when it comes to activism in this day and age. What is streamed cannot be removed easily from the internet. It is very valuable to the Occupy movement. Those who are disabled, or understandably wrapped up in their families and careers, can still be a part of the movement via livestream. It’s a public service, and therefore a very rewarding experience.
Because of the difficulty in which to delete streamed recordings, when the police get out of line, become violent, and make arrests, streaming is one of the most important mediums with which to capture these moments. Even if you get arrested, the video is safely online and cannot be deleted without access to your account. Do Occupy a service, and capture these moments as often as you can, because photographers recording to memory cards or tape may lose their data if arrested. It is not difficult to avoid getting arrested yourself- the only time I’ve been arrested was during the camp eviction in NYC, and it was a situation where I decided to get arrested via civil disobedience. Listen to the police when they give you an order, and you won’t be locked up. Other than that, step back from the action when altercations occur and try to capture the whole scene. When a streamer gets into the thick of it, the video usually comes out shaky and incoherent. Step back from the action and hold your camera high- you won’t be seen as a threat by the police, and you can capture more clearly what is occurring.
Be level-headed, try to think about some of these things while streaming, and, most of all, enjoy yourself. You’ll feel the power of the people during a well organized action, and by livestreaming, you can bring that experience to an infinite number of others. Take pride in that, and remember it during the tough times, because there will be tough times. Do your job well enough, and you will be well taken care of.