The company’s charismatic 27-year-old founder and CEO, Kayvon Beykpour, is keen to discuss how he is preparing to fight Mark Zuckerberg’s social-media juggernaut, and what lies in store for the future of Periscope.
What have been the highlights of your first year?
It has been a huge highlight to see how people have been using the product. That’s one of the things you never really know as a startup. In beta, you have a sense of where it could go, but seeing people actually use it to cover breaking news events, to see celebrities share with their fans, to see experts share their craft with their patrons, to see organisations use it to cover the news, to see your friends and family using it to let you step into their shoes… It’s really energising.
So, not the Newcastle puddle, then?
The puddle was fascinating because it’s an interesting psychological insight into why the live medium can be powerful – even for something that is seemingly so mundane. We have some heavily watched broadcasts of grass growing and paint drying; it’s not that you’re watching the paint dry – it’s that you’re watching the paint dry with people live. The substance comes in how people interact with each other in that shared experience.
So, what was exciting about the puddle was not just the fact that you were watching a puddle in real time – it’s that people started interacting with the puddle. Someone brought a kayak to the puddle because they knew there was an audience. Someone delivered pizza to the puddle because someone asked for it in the comments. Those are the things that make the shared experience exciting, and people are really clever with that.
When you launched, you were in favour of ephemerality – videos auto-deleted in a day. Why has that changed?
When we first launched Periscope, I don’t think a lot of people really embraced live video. The uphill battle we felt we were facing was: how can we make the experience feel charming enough and low-friction enough that you would bother broadcasting live rather than posting a picture or posting a video that is not live? And ephemerality was one way that we addressed that.
So, if people felt as if they were creating content that wasn’t going to last for ever, they’d be that much more willing to take the leap?
Yes. The reason we changed our approach is that the world moved much faster than we expected. People now aren’t asking the question: “Why should I live stream this?” They’re asking all kinds of other questions, but they’re not debating the merits of the medium.
You aren’t the only app to make that change: even Snapchat is expanding beyond just disappearing pictures. Is there some wider cause?
I think people are becoming more and more comfortable with creating media from their mobile devices. Now, it’s not odd to see someone taking pictures, taking video or broadcasting outside. It’s just part of the pervasiveness of these devices, and sharing generally, that is changing over time.
What are the problems that are unique to live video?
I think some of the challenges lie in getting an audience because, usually, when you want to watch something like Downton Abbey – sorry to use the most stereotypical example of British TV – you know what time it’s airing and what channel it’s airing on. There’s a culture around having the kettle ready at that time and, boom, you’re ready to go.
The challenge with live streaming is: how on earth can you convince tens of thousands of people to stop what they’re doing, open a push notification and go watch your broadcast right now when they have infinite options of what they could be doing with their time? Like, that’s a preposterous thought – that I could just take your time on a whim.
‘I’m proud we’ve built something people are using because they like it, not because they’re being paid to.’ Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose for the Observer
In many ways, it hasn’t changed what we’re doing – we are still focused on building a product that people love. I don’t think that products win or lose based on whether they’re David or Goliath; I think it’s whether they’ve built something that feels special – something that people want to use.
That’s why I think Periscope will continue to thrive – because we have built something that is interesting enough that other people want to shamelessly get in the space. If anything, that’s just flattering. Because the type of question people were asking us a year ago when we launched was: “Why would anyone use this?”
One way Facebook is competing is by paying for content. It’s something that has been raised with the video service Vine. Is it something you’re looking at?
I’m proud that we’ve built something that people are using because they get value out of it, not because they’re being paid to use it. I think that [for Facebook], it’s an effective and aggressive way to play catch-up, for sure. But, philosophically, we want to make sure that we’re always building something that people inherently want to use, without using economics as a crutch.
That said, it’s important to make sure we’re incentivising creators. And you already see Twitter experimenting with this: we have a whole division called Niche that works with creators to help pair them with brands that want to sponsor content and help them make a living.
What about the future? Facebook is also pushing 360-degree video and virtual reality. With Periscope sitting under Twitter, where do your ambitions end?
One of the nice things about our approach is that we are a separate everything: we’re a separate app in the App Store, on Google Play; we’re a separate team with a separate office. So you’ll see us dabble with a lot of things. I think our focus right now is helping you to see the world in real time, and that at least grounds us in a set of focal points that won’t have us straying too far into other things… Well, you won’t be renting vacation homes on Periscope any time soon.
When you open Periscope, what do you watch now?
If you look at my feed on any given day, you’ll see a collection of things that are important to me personally, because it’s family or a friend. I get to see my parents going on walks – they have five people watching their broadcast, but it’s a really nice, intimate experience.
On the other side of the spectrum, I listen to BBC World Service’s Outside Source. It broadcasts on Periscope, and you can interact with the hosts right there from the experience. I tune in to learn about what’s happening in the world.