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Surprising response to 'drunk' driving live video: empathy

A Florida woman streamed a live video of herself driving while saying she was drunk. But the compassionate response from some users shows how the technology has positive possibilities, too. 

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Whitney Beall is shown in this photo made available Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, by the Polk County Sheriff's Office. Authorities say 911 calls from concerned viewers led to the arrest of the Florida woman who was streaming live video of herself while driving drunk.

Polk County Sheriff's Office/AP

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The arrest of a Florida woman who police say streamed live video of herself driving drunk is a new marker of how deeply online sharing culture has permeated American society – and highlights how social technologies are evolving both to meet and fuel this demand.

But the potential is not just for a downward spiral of inappropriate content posted from a desperate desire for attention, experts say.  

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When mobile apps such as Twitter-owned Periscope and its rival Meerkat launched earlier this year, they gave the average person, for the first time, the power to provide and participate in the streaming experience whenever and wherever they wanted via their smartphones.

Police in Lakeland, Fla., say Whitney Beall fell afoul of that temptation in a dangerous and potentially criminal way. But the incident also suggests that the technology has the ability to engage people in new and thoughtful ways, too.

Though just over 50 people were reportedly watching Ms. Beall on Periscope Saturday as she went to bars with friends, some of them called 911 when she tried to drive herself home.

“Live-streaming has the potential for being very beneficial because it allows us to be with others in a moment – to understand life and have empathy for a person,” says John Grohol, a doctor of psychology who specializes in online mental health and human behavior, and founder and CEO of PsychCentral.com. “It provides an understanding of the daily problems of living.”

Dr. Grohol describes the possibility of broadcasting, in real time, how a woman from a poor village might struggle to bring water to her family. That event could strike viewers as “more real and tangible and emotionally compelling” in a live-streaming format than in text, still images, or edited video, he says.

Of course, digital tools are “a double-edged sword,” he notes. “The way we’ve set up social media, it’s one big popularity contest.” Such a scheme can lead to risky behavior for the sake of a good tweet or Instagram photo.

These services “can amplify or reinforce bad or outrageous behavior,” he says. “If it gets you more likes, [some might say], ‘Wow, I’m going to see how much I can push the limit here.’ ”

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But that's not the way it must be.

“How a live-stream is used determines its impact, positive or negative,” Gwenn S. O’Keeffe, a pediatrician who specializes in digital media health, writes in an e-mail. At this point, she added, “What’s needed is better education so that people thinking of using a live-stream understand the issues and the potential impact on others.”

The impact of the technology, so far, has been limited to adding value to already-existing media events and social media campaigns.

Periscope, for instance, made headlines in May for its role in giving frustrated viewers access to the boxing match between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. amid delays in the fight’s pay-per-view broadcast. The same month, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina used the app to hold a virtual town hall as she kicked off her White House bid. 

But the potential for more and better exists, some say. As the Monitor’s Chris Gaylord reported in the spring:

In many ways, Periscope feels like Twitter in its early days, back when people primarily shared trivial details from their lives, such as breakfast menus, instead of breaking news.… In 2011, when protesters in Cairo took to the streets to denounce the Egyptian government, many Americans followed the protests in real time through social media, giving legitimacy to online services such as Twitter and Facebook once generally viewed as fun but frivolous.

That “Tahrir Square moment” has yet to occur for live-streaming, but Periscope reported hitting the 10 million user mark in August. Meerkat expanded from a staff of 11 to nearly 30 in the last five months.

With live video images, these apps add a new intensity to the social media experience. 

“It brings us immediately into another person’s world,” says Grohol. “We are immersed in their life and their environment right then and there. That’s an intense experience that speaks to people more readily than other forms of social media.”