Is Livestreaming the Future of Media, or the Future of Activism?

NY Mag

On Wednesday evening, hundreds of chanting protesters marched fast down Tenth Avenue after a grand jury declined to indict an NYPD officer for killing Staten Island street vendor Eric Garner with a chokehold. They moved over the pavement between cars and buses, past a smiling taxi driver who gave high-fives out of his window while honking in time with chants of “Black! Lives! Matter!” There was a lot to watch. In the middle of the action, James Woods, a big, bearded white guy wearing a black hoodie and a bulky backpack, gazed into the screen of the smartphone hoisted on a monopod in front of him as if in a trance. Woods is a live-streamer who goes by the handle “James on the Internet.” At that moment, around 1,500 viewers were watching the protests through his smartphone’s point of view, on his Livestream.com account. The images and sounds he was broadcasting changed swiftly with the energy of the protest. At one point, Woods’s stream was filled with a sea of prone bodies blanketing the surface of the West Side Highway, in what organizers called a “die-in.” Then it showed the crowd chanting “we can’t breathe,” surrounded by hundreds of police. And then, suddenly, he headed uptown, along the empty, blocked-off road. Police were gone, except for an NYPD helicopter above, and Woods — along with the protesters he was following — moved faster. The video was unsteady but continuous: Woods’s job, as he sees it, isn’t to mediate imagery, but rather to vacuum up as much of it as he can.

Countless television news crews stalked the protesters through Manhattan as well, but for Woods, they were interlopers on his turf. During Thursday night’s protests, he kept streaming into the early morning, eventually ending up in midtown with the last hard-core marchers, who were dispersed by an NYPD sound cannon. He’d also filmed the protests in New York over the killing of the black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which have now bled into protests over Eric Garner’s killing. Woods brought his viewers along as protesters blocked the Willis Avenue Bridge in Harlem, and as thousands filled Times Square shouting, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” Each day on Twitter, viewers hit him up to find out where the protest would be that night. Over the previous ten nights, he’d racked up more than a million views on his account.

Woods was inspired to start live=streaming by firsthand experience with the limits of the mainstream television news networks. He tells an origin story that begins with his disenchantment in 2011, while working as a producer in Atlanta for Nancy Grace’s HLN show. The show was filmed in CNN’s headquarters, where he could peek into the control room and watch producers stitch together broadcasts from dozens of camera feeds displayed on a bank of monitors. He watched CNN’s coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests as it was made and was appalled by what he perceived as an obvious whitewashing playing out before his eyes. “You could see in one monitor the police would be violently arresting somebody, and instead they’d go to another monitor and there would be Bob. And Bob would be three blocks away, and there’d be like ten hippies behind him, and he’d be like, ‘Nothing happening here, Steve, back to you!’” Woods soon visited the encampment of Occupy Atlanta, told them he worked in television, and asked how he could help get the word out.

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