Hassett: The revolution will be live-streamed


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I spent my weekend playing Pokémon. But I’m not antisocial, you see. I played it with more than 100,000 people at the same time.

This colossal play of a classic role-playing game is still happening, but not at some convention for the unwashed nerd masses. Now halfway through Day 12, the game is taking place online: a social experiment dubbed Twitch Plays Pokémon.

The moniker comes from the website of choice, Twitch.tv, a live-streaming service geared toward gamers who want to broadcast their sessions to the world. And the premise is simple: via a chat window, viewers type commands (a, b, right, left, down, up, start) which translate into button presses as they are read by a special software in the order they came in.

TPP, as it has come to be abbreviated, quickly became one of the most popular streams on Twitch and spawned a cult online following. It’s mesmerizingly chaotic and near random because of input delay. But when you become bored of watching the game’s protagonist circle in corners for hours on end (with dozens of commands per second, it gets pretty hard to coordinate), you can also live-stream the downfall of a regime.

From the early days of unrest in Kiev, Ukraine, media-savvy protesters and news organizations have broadcast live video of Independence Square for the world to experience. These raw video feeds came to a climax in the past week, as protesters formed a defensive ring of flames in the nation’s capital, smoke often obscuring the camera’s view of fire and brimstone as riot police tried unsuccessfully to move in. The chants and cries uttered by these people standing in solidarity made chills run down my spine.

It was captivating, unfiltered, and uncensored. No commentary was offered. And that live stream was more real than any news report I’ve seen.

Ukraine’s citizens were by no means the first to live-stream their protests. Occupy Wall Street broke ground in that regard, with dozens if not hundreds of live narrated accounts of the movement finding their way online. The promise was exhilarating: With a video camera and an Internet connection, you, too, could be a voice of the revolution.

But Occupy Wall Street found itself facing the same problem that Twitch Plays Pokémon faces now: With too many voices, the product is not symphony but cacophony. It’s a new kind of quandary in the hyper-connected age. How can there be cohesion when everyone’s talking at once?

After becoming stuck in one of the game’s puzzles for nearly a full day, the creator of TPP crafted a solution. Instead of having the software read every command as it comes in, viewers can vote for Democracy mode, which takes the most popular action requests in a certain time window. Though it requires a supermajority of votes to activate, Democracy lets the collective will of the players decide what action to take next, rather than the all-out mob rule, which resulted in paralyzing inertia.

Twitch Plays Pokémon illustrates the nature of collective action, its power and its shortcomings. Too many people speaking can make the message incomprehensible, as Occupy Wall Street found out the hard way. But with the combination of organization and genuine conviction, the result can be something beautiful.

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