Beyond The Realm Of Games: Can Livestreaming Save Cultures That Are Disappearing?

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When you think of livestreaming, what comes to your mind first? Is it perhaps your favourite Twitch gamer, wittily commenting throughout the entire ranked match they are playing, or does your instinct turn towards live podcasts, which have an appeal for being “raw” and “unscripted”? Or maybe like the hundreds of thousands of BTS fans that attended their livestreamed concert earlier this year (that earned a cool $20 million dollars no less), your need for your live music fix in these trying times brings you there. With any of the above-listed activities, what we do know is that that livestreaming is perhaps one of the most lucrative mediums in existence. It easily surpasses traditional film and television as the world’s preferred choice for entertainment. A reported $5 billion+ industry that has yet to see a decline, it makes perfect sense that many are looking for ways to exploit and harness its unbreakable grasp upon an almost unbelievably-sized audience. China has taken livestreaming beyond its initial boom in the gaming industry to a new level, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security now officially recognizes “livestream-sellers” as an actual job. $61 billion US dollars were earned via the livestream e-commerce market in 2019 alone.

You can livestream just about anything these days, but perhaps the most unexpected ‘niche’ livestreaming genre that has grown quite considerably over the past few years is what is being referred to as cultural or heritage streams. In the fantastic, CHI award-winning paper by Zhicong Lu, Michelle Annett, Mingming Fan, and Daniel Wigdor, they explore this phenomenon and how it has the potential to preserve and pass on ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ (ICH) which is crucial to the survival of a culture’s practices and traditions.

Ephemerality made permanent

The survival of a culture or ethnic group is dependent on how they can keep a practice alive, it goes beyond the monuments, buildings, or scriptures, in fact, more importantly, it is the oral traditions crafting techniques or art forms that allow for a transfer of knowledge from generation to generation. We are at risk of losing entire cultural heritages as the traditions become lost to time. However, livestreaming has caused a resurgence of interest from younger generations who are now able to experience a whole slew of cultural traditions through the internet. Peking opera performances are no longer constrained to music halls, nor do you need to travel thousands of miles to rural Fujiu province to learn about life in a Tulou (Mulan’s ancestral home). Instead, you can engage directly with practitioners of these practices, ask them questions through a chat function, and even build relationships with them on a scale we’ve never seen before within this space.

“These practices are not only a manifestation of human intelligence and creativity, but also a medium for intergenerational transmission of the wealth of human knowledge.”

(Lu, 2019)

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“The current eco-system of engaging with ICH livestreamers and viewers, which is dominated by livestreaming software and WeChat usage” (Lu, 2019)

The Silk Road of the internet

Before our world became the interconnected living and breathing information-sharing beast it is today due to the internet, information, culture, and traditions were passed on through trading posts along the world’s largest trading route, the Silk Road. Today’s internet can be likened to the Silk Road, except trillions and trillions of bytes of information are shared every single second across a complex network with no clear path. That can become a bit of a problem when it comes to knowledge-sharing, it is very easy for miscommunications to happen. As noted in the paper, many ICH streamers will find themselves challenged, ad viewers question their talent, value, or legitimacy. Also due to some streamers essentially infiltrating particular ICH communities and falsely claiming they are experts at a particular craft has also caused many authentic practitioners to become disheartened.

Lu and his team are looking to find better ways to improve the current experience for these cultural streamers to maximize their impact and meet their needs.”…Livestreaming ICH activities is fragmented and complex. ICH streamers use various mobile applications, including different streaming platforms, short video sharing, and instant messaging apps (e.g., WeChat and QQ), to help them better engage viewers, promote ICH, and conduct e-commerce transactions. These practices have resulted in a fragmented and complex ecosystem.” (Lu, 2019) This fragmentation as demonstrated by the complicated diagram above, can lead to some problems in terms of loss of opportunity and definitely a segmented audience. Currently, there is no streamlined way to do this type of work, as it is unlike any other streaming genre out there. These ICH streamers need e-commerce market places to sell their unique wares, and different tools depending on what practices they want to share. There is no “one size fits all” approach to any ICH practice, so it makes sense why they tend to use multiple platforms. That is why finding a solution to simplify the whole knowledge-sharing process may be the key to making the lives of ICH streamers easier, like a Silk Road solely for cultural exchange.

Barriers to entry

There are some other emerging challenges that Lu and his team foresee based on their research. Several ethnic groups (China has about 56 distinct ethnic groups) and their very unique practices are drastically underrepresented. “Understanding the barriers that prevent these underrepresented cultural practitioners and their local communities from using livestreaming is important to improve the diversity and safeguarding of ICH livestreaming practices.” The team suggests that governments and non-profits should be doing all they can to support and incentivize these ICH practitioners before it is too late.

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The Miao people, an ethnic minority from Guizhou province. Photo by Emma Marler from interactchina.wordpress.com

Knowledge lives on

Many people like to demonize technology, call it a destroyer of the natural world, and of many of the ancient ways of doing things that existed for generations prior to the current day advancements. But it doesn’t have to be that way, we can utilize it as an empowering tool that can actually preserve, transform and elevate those intangible traditions that are so vital to a culture’s continued existence. Researchers like Lu and his team are vital in helping us define how this space can be even greater in the future.

You can catch the upcoming interactive research seminar given by Lu, chief scientist at our company, Dataraction, on December 10th, 2020. The recent PhD graduate will delve into how livestreaming can transform knowledge-sharing for not only cultural practices but education as well.

Experience it all on the platform built based on Lu’s research in HCI, DotsLive, here!

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