Instagram Live Rides an Unexpected Wave
Once upon a time, people watched shows on television when they were broadcast, and announcers and TV stars hawked products directly to the camera. Today, thanks to social platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, anyone can broadcast live from anywhere. Pre-pandemic, when people were busy commuting to work and school, running errands, and socializing IRL, catching a live broadcast potentially originating from a different timezone was something of a crapshoot, and few creators really succeeded in making “appointment television” out of these small-scale shows, especially when viewers could just watch the recorded version after they were done.
With much of the world sheltering at home for now, livestreaming is having a moment. And not just because audiences are more available: The warts-and-all nature of live performance has a special appeal during these scary times, when people are craving connection and wanting to see other humans in real time.
“The idea of live rekindles the early sense of social media," business analyst Brian Solis told USA Today in March. "It feels good to be with people."
Representatives for Instagram declined to confirm any hard numbers about the exact jump in usage. But as a result of the clamor for live video interaction, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri said in recent weeks that the company is fast-tracking a previously announced feature that would allow up to six guests into an IG Live stream, where currently the limit is two.
Instagram Live and IGTV weren’t embraced by video creators when they first launched, in November 2016 and June 2018 respectively. But suddenly fitness gurus, drag queens, comedians, bartenders, and cooking instructors are jumping on to Instagram daily to do live shows—sometimes asking for tips or donations via Venmo or Paypal—likely in part because many of them have the most followers on the platform.
Celebrities like Miley Cyrus have jumped on IG Live to create slapdash talk shows—Miley’s show, “Bright Minded,” had its own theme song and aired daily for two weeks on Instagram, with guests including Ellen Degeneres, Mark Ronson, and Dua Lipa. The tagline: “Connecting w/ special guests discussing how to stay LIT with love in dark times!” But it already aired its “finale episode” in early April, with featured guests Elton John, Kerry Washington, Selena Gomez, and Jimmy Fallon—though we may see Miley back on IG Live, perhaps on her own, free of the pressure of recruiting big-name guests.
“I use live to be instantly connected,” says Los Angeles-based comedian, writer and actress Greta Titelman (HBO’s Los Espookys). “I was never a YouTuber so I haven’t really crossed over into that universe. I like that live puts you in it immediately and whoever catches it catches it.”
Titelman had been posting comedy bits on her Instagram feed over the last year, but in the last several weeks she’s been doing regular 10 a.m. (Pacific Time) broadcasts she calls “Matcha Dance,” because she does them right after drinking her morning matcha tea.
“It’s also nice to schedule something on live so you have SOMETHING to put on your calendar,” she says. “For me, my live has given me structure and a reason to move my body.”
Other creators echoed this need for scheduled events, and performers like Justin Vivian Bond (Kiki & Herb) have been using Instagram as a socially distanced performance venue. Where Mx. Bond (chosen pronoun: v) had previously used Instagram to share personal photos, news articles, and the occasional performance clip, since our mandated self-isolation began v has been broadcasting live and on IGTV as “Auntie Glam.” It’s a new character Bond’s created while stuck at home in upstate New York and unable to perform live, a sort of soft-edged, well-meaning, overly familiar auntie who likes to do living room numbers—and a kinder, gentler foil to the hard-living Kiki character Bond did for years in cabaret settings.
Accompanied by neighbors David Sytkowski and Nathan Carrera, Auntie Glam hosted a live musical happy hour last week (with Venmo and Paypal “tip jars”), singing a song from Marianne Faithful while sipping a gin daisy. (She also provided a cocktail tutorial in a separate video so that fans could mix their own.) The week prior she gave a similar performance with Sytkowski on piano as she flitted about her parlor, Florence Foster Jenkins-style, singing century-old songs about spring.
“21 days in captivity, my darlings,” says Auntie Glam, noting that she and her musicians are only able to gather because they’ve each been self-isolating for weeks. Then she segues into an angry, apocalyptic 1970 song from Nina Simone called “22nd Century” in which she describes a plague arriving in 1980.
San Francisco bar owner and mixologist Gillian Fitzgerald, whose bar Casements opened in the Mission barely two months before the pandemic crisis began to unfold, has turned her newly abundant free time into Instagram Live cocktail demos. These events double as time to connect with her family in Ireland—she broadcasts at 11:30 a.m. Pacific Time, which is cocktail hour in Ireland—and as promotion for brands that she works for and her own bar’s cocktails-to-go program (something that California recently allowed during this crisis).
“We’re not trying to push our products on anyone right now,” Fitzgerald says. “We’re trying to find ways to help the community and have interesting and fun content that people will remember later, and maybe buy the product.”
The inspiration for the live broadcasts, she says, came after Irish whiskey brand Tullamore Dew had asked her to make an Irish Coffee on Instagram Live on the morning of St. Patrick’s Day—the signature creation of San Francisco’s Buena Vista Cafe—and the feedback and engagement was especially good.
Fitzgerald says that not everything feels solid with Instagram Live’s backend, though, given the sudden surge of users. “I learned the other day that when The Fat Jewish (Josh Ostrovsky) goes on there, you may as well not bother. The whole thing crashes.” (It should be noted Miley Cyrus had claimed that 11:30 a.m. PT timeslot as well.) And Social Media Today suggests that IG Live is likely to have some pitfalls ahead as it adds multi-participant streaming, both in terms of video transfer rates and overall data load.
Fitzgerald has been trying to adapt cocktail recipes based on the ingredients she has on hand, rather than telling people to go to a store to buy something unnecessary. And next week she’s partnering with a local foraging expert, Iso Rabins, to take a socially distanced foraging trip through Golden Gate Park. The pair plan to broadcast the trip live and to bring some equipment to make a cocktail from foraged ingredients and a mezcal brand she reps called Yola.
“It’s almost like Pinterest come to life,” she says, noting how the format—especially for those in the food and beverage, fitness, or fashion spaces—allows creators to share tips and recipes in a more unvarnished and interactive way.
“Innovation plus boredom is creating a new Instagram Live experience,” says comedian Quinta Brunson (A Black Lady Sketch Show). Speaking to Digital Trends last month, Brunson added that the ability to hear from fans across the globe, in real time, and during a global crisis, is immensely powerful and satisfying.
“I got one message from someone in London [after my first IG Live comedy show] who is in self-isolation, and is immunocompromised, who said it was the best part of their day,” Brunson says. “And to me, that one message makes it so worth it.”