An obscure garage band Severe Tire Damage made internet history in 1993 by becoming the first to livestream video and audio from Xerox Corp.’s legendary Palo Alto Research Center. Today, the technology is helping to cushion the worst of the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic by acting as a crucial communication tool during a time of social distancing and sheltering-in-place.
Work-from-home employees are livestreaming meetings from their bedrooms, school children are getting online lessons, leaders from the G-20 nations have held a virtual summit and the Pope, too, has delivered Sunday prayers by livestream to reduce crowds. In the entertainment industry, the rapid spread of COVID-19 has forced bands and venues to provide online alternatives after gigs and tours were canceled due to lockdowns.
“I suspect all of the ingredients are in place for livestreaming to become more commonplace in Western society,” J. Murphy McCaleb, a senior lecturer of music at York St John University, said in an email interview. “The crux of this, I think, is how long the various social distancing measures will last.”
In China, home to the most internet users in the world, the livestreaming industry has seen rapid growth even before the coronavirus outbreak. As of June 2019, one in two internet users in China, or 433 million people, have watched livestreams, according to data from the China Internet Network Information Center.
The technology was recently used to help at-risk populations that were hard-hit by coronavirus-related disruptions. One such community was that of farmers, who depended on wholesalers to buy their harvests and sell them seeds and fertilizers for the next planting season.
When wholesale markets shut down in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak in China, farming communities were looking at potential ruin with no buyers in sight. To solve this break in the supply chain, Pinduoduo Inc. (PDD), a big e-commerce platform with 585 million active buyers, created a dedicated sales channel on its app for farmers.
The company also held livestreaming sessions featuring community leaders and anxious farmers who were encouraged to introduce their local specialties online.
PDD also conducted live online lectures for farmers on topics such as pest infestation, lessons that were typically done in person in the past years by experts from universities and technical institutes. A total of 4 million farmers are expected to benefit from this livestreamed series.
Besides education, demand for cultural content has also surged worldwide in the past month with the closure of museums, galleries and other cultural institutions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
PDD recently collaborated with seven museums to conduct virtual tours where in addition to viewing works of art presented by a tour guide, consumers could buy souvenirs from their online shops. The Sydney Biennale has also announced a shift to digital display, while the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra streamed a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
“The possible extended closures of cultural institutions as a result of the coronavirus is likely to accelerate the further adoption of technology,” Caroline Wilson-Barnao, a lecturer at the University of Queensland, said in an email interview. “The emergence of the #museumathome movement in spaces such as Instagram is evidence of this.”
With time, culture will increasingly become “on-demand”, making its consumption more akin to Amazon and Netflix, said Wilson-Barnao, whose research focuses on the use of digital media. This will likely lead to more partnerships between technology companies, institutions and creators, and redefine how people understand culture, she said.
“That isn’t to say that online and on-site exhibitions are the same thing,” she said. “We cannot underestimate the aura of the real artifact and the pleasure of traveling to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa.”