The live stream dream: COVID-19 and its impact on social media engagement trends

Anyone with a social media account and a little spare time (anyone?) during this unprecedented period of self-isolation is likely to have observed a distinct trend on certain social platforms.

I first noticed it during my initial few locked-down evenings, when, like many others, I found myself killing all the extra time I’d suddenly acquired scrolling through my Instagram feed, taking in what my friends, family, favourite influencers and celebrities were getting up to.

As I scrolled, banner notifications popped up in quick succession at the top of my Instagram app, announcing all the people who were at that very moment starting Instagram Live streams. And there were a lot of them – in fact, they were almost constant. From friends sharing their evening routines, to celebrities offering social commentary or putting on impromptu live concerts to influencers and brands sharing live yoga sessions, workouts or makeup tutorials, everyone was going live.

Instagram Live and YouTube Live in particular have experienced a surge in use since the implementation of rigorous social distancing measures put in place by many national governments. Stephanie Otway, a spokeswoman for Instagram, shared with the New York Times that viewership of Instagram live in Italy doubled in the two weeks from March 9th, when Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called for a national quarantine.

It’s no surprise that we’re flocking to real time social as a means of staying in touch. As Dr Brittany LeMonda, a senior neuropsychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital told the New York Times, “’We are social animals and that doesn’t just go away during a crisis. If this becomes our new normal, we have to get creative with how we feel connectedness.’”

The reality is that we’re in an unprecedented situation: all collectively homebound with lots of time on our hands and not much to keep us busy. We’re in a new state of constant uncertainty as the news about Covid-19 continues to evolve on an almost hourly basis, shaping our futures in the immediate and medium terms.

In this unique climate, when we would normally turn to our daily community organisations – like places of worship, workplaces, schools and sports teams – for support, commiseration and community, we turn to the only thing that can continue to connect us with others, and which provides the resources we would usually have access to offline for staying fit, nourished, informed, entertained and – well – sane, when we’re self-isolating: technology. And technology is the perfect catalyst for bringing this offline sense of community online on a massive scale.

These live streams, whose new pervasiveness could be seen as excessive by some, have so far received an overwhelmingly positive response by the global online community.

Readers may be familiar with fitness influencer Joe Wicks extremely popular daily live streams on YouTube. Since Monday, March 23rd, the health coach has taken to YouTube Live every morning at 9am to run free half-hour workouts. Entitled ‘PE with Joe’, the daily workouts attract close to a million live streams, with the estimated number of individuals simultaneously watching or participating estimated at over 2 million.

Over on Instagram, users have also been heaping praise on celebrities like Miley Cyrus, who has been a daily Instagram live talk show, called “Bright Minded”, featuring celebrity guests like Demi Lovato, Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski, Mark Ronson and Reese Witherspoon. These celebrities also provide much-needed social cues and guidance on how to respond to the pandemic to the bored, captive masses that tune in. On Miley’s show, Porowski exhorts viewers not to panic buy or hoard food, while other celebrities have used their platforms to encourage users to wash their hands and follow CDC guidelines.

No matter what they’re live streaming, influencers and celebrities are providing content that is, if not always useful, extremely intriguing.

We’re used to seeing these role models for the most part edited, posed and airbrushed on their Instagram and YouTube feeds. To see them in their homes, living their everyday lives, tuning in without the help of a stylist or makeup artist is thrilling to us. I know I loved seeing Jamie Oliver’s face in every pore-y, wrinkle-y detail while his kid threw a tantrum in the background during yesterday’s live stream. It made him relatable.

Ultimately, the surge in social live streaming activity is win-win for everyone. Bored, captive individuals – influential and otherwise – are taking this opportunity to create content and communicate their use, relatability and raise their social equity, while bored, captive audiences are primed to consume that content. What’s more, in an uncertain time, they’re grateful for the sense of community, connectedness, relatability, information and guidance it provides.

The platforms themselves are also very aware of this shift in digital engagement. Instagram fast tracked the launch of its Co-Watching feature, which allows users to be on a group video chat while simultaneously browsing Instagram posts together. Adoption will likely be greater than it might have been without our current climate, given people’s current need to simultaneously kill time, be entertained and connect with friends. A smart move on Instagram’s part.

It may have just been good timing, but YouTube has also mobilised quickly, offering newly upgraded YouTube live analytics reporting and tells USA Today that it’s “working to ‘meet the increased demand for live streaming as university events, conferences, and religious services move their gatherings online.’”

But will this shift in online engagement trends around live streaming continue once we’re released from self-isolation?

It’s unlikely.

While this unusual context has already made most users more comfortable using live social functionalities, we’re not expecting to see a continued surge in use once audiences are no longer situationally compelled to rely on it. Essentially, it’s a great alternative for social connectedness in extenuating circumstances like the one we’re currently faces, but we ultimately need a healthy mix of offline and online activities.

But as Andrew Hutchison reports in a recent Social Media Today article, these changing online habits “could lead to further behavioural shifts beyond this period, which could define the next generation of digital content consumption”.

In the meantime, however, Instagram’s head of global partnerships, Charles Porch told NBC News that he anticipates that “‘we’re going to see more series where people will do regularly scheduled programming’” and that “celebrity streaming shows on the platform is something that will become more frequent in the coming days and weeks”.

Stay tuned.