Facebook Live a window into the good, bad and ugly of human experience

In a world where anyone can broadcast live — including the birth of their child — is anything off limits?

Live childbirth video 'hit a nerve' because 'we're in a moment of transition,' says social media researcher

A California dad live streamed the birth of his son, who wailed for the first few minutes of his life until his mother, Sarah Dome, calmed him down. Thousands watched the birth as it happened. (Fakamalo Kihe Eiki/Facebook)

Thousands of people watched live as Ngangatulelei HeKelesi came red-faced and screaming into the world on Monday. 

He's not a celebrity or royalty — just a regular boy from California. But a few days after his father Kali Kanongata'a broadcast the birth in real time on Facebook Live, more than 200,000 people have watched the video.

Complete strangers saw mother Sarah Dome grimacing in pain, her legs spread and her knees pulled back, as she brought new life into the world. People all over the internet watched her smile as she held her newborn son in her arms for the first time. 

"I'm really shocked that so many people seen the video," Dome later told CBC News. "My baby's a star." 

The allure of the video is clear — it's original, emotional and compelling. But it left many people wondering — why would someone publicly share something so personal? 

"People are obviously passionate about the birth of their child, and we share what we are passionate about, whether that's a Justin Bieber concert or becoming a parent," said Jenna Jacobson, a University of Toronto PhD candidate who studies the way digital technologies affect society.

'It's hit a nerve'

But for some, the video crossed a line. Many online have bemoaned what they see as a culture of oversharing, so much so that Kanongata'a followed the video with a post defending it.

"It's hit a nerve, and it may be because we're in a moment of transition," Sidneyeve Matrix, who teaches digital communications at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said. "What are our expectations about intimacy and privacy online?"  

That's something we're still trying to collectively figure out, Jacobson said, and the boundaries keep shifting. 

"The etiquette with new technology is changing," she said. "Years ago it would have been considered very impolite to have your phone out on a table while you eat dinner at a restaurant. Now that is a relatively acceptable norm."

'Go-to mode of social media sharing'

But wherever you stand on the issue, you'd better get used to being invited into people's lives and living rooms. Matrix said live video is quickly becoming "the go-to mode of social media sharing." 

About 10 million people watch 350,000 hours of live video a day on Periscope, a live streaming service on Twitter that Matrix calls "niche." Now that Facebook has rolled out live video to its 1.65 billion active users, she said, "this is going to bring live video sharing right into the mainstream."

Already, people are broadcasting their pets and children, their weddings and their proms. Reporters regularly live stream on location during breaking news. 

BuzzFeed live streamed doctors performing cosmetic surgery. Tens of thousands of people watched, in real time, as comedian Ricky Gervais took a bath

"It's got an emotional intensity. It's an immersive experience; it has that authenticity," Matrix said. "It creates a virtual togetherness and that's powerful."

The dark side

But in a world where anyone can broadcast anything, the whole range of human experience is on display — and it's not always pretty. 

Last month, an Ohio woman was accused of live streaming her friend's rape on Periscope. On Tuesday, a Florida man live streamed his standoff with police

French police are investigating reports that a woman live streamed her own suicide, and authorities in Milwaukee are investigating reports of teenagers live streaming their sexual encounters for their peers.

"With new social tools and technologies, we always need to consider ethics," Jacobson said. "Intent and consent are key to how we use social media."

The widespread adoption of a technology once only available to a handful of professional media outlets brings new challenges, said Alfred Hermida, a journalism professor at the University of British Columbia who specializes in social media. 

"We are all carrying a broadcast station in our pockets in the shape of our cellphones and are always online. More significantly, social media makes it easy to tap into a ready-made audience," he said.

"This places a greater responsibility on us as the audience to be able to make the right decisions in what we choose to watch. We all have to be smart media consumers and not reward unethical behaviour with views and clicks."

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