Facebook hoped the raw immediacy of livestreaming might coax users to share more about their lives. On Thursday, a woman in the passenger seat of the car where Philando Castile lay dying, shot by a Minnesota cop during a traffic stop, used Facebook Live to show the world the gory aftermath.
When the social media giant introduced Facebook Live, it probably expected safe viral moments such as Chewbacca Mum or the Buzzfeed watermelon explosion. But it found livestreaming is a lot more than that. Like real life, livestreaming can have a light side and a dark side. It has a long history of use as a powerful medium for accountability, which is what Diamond Reynolds achieved.
Her video disappeared from Facebook that night, then reappeared with a warning of graphic content. Facebook later said the video was temporarily taken down because of a "technical glitch", without explaining further. But the sudden loss of access raises questions about whether Facebook is ready to judge which raw, visceral moments its users broadcast may stay on the site, and which will go.
Throw in Facebook's long history of cultivating a feeling of safety within its blue-and-white virtual walls through unpredictable moderation and aggressive content policies, and the complications of Facebook's new commitment to livestreaming become clear.
No matter how much Mark Zuckerberg chews on the word "raw", it will never be fully macerated in the maw of Silicon Valley buzzwords. "Raw" can mean a mother in her car, delighted by an impulse buy at Kohl's. It can also mean a man dying in his car as a police officer swears while pointing a gun at his body, or a broadcast suicide or rape, seemingly for the sake of getting "likes".
Platforms such as Facebook Live and Twitter-owned Periscope have hosted livestreams of all of the above in a span of just a few months.
Here's what Reynolds broadcast last week: Castile lay bleeding, an officer screamed expletives, seemingly to himself and to passengers in the car. She kept filming.
The officer shouted: "I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his hands up."
"You told him to get his ID, sir, his driver's licence," she replied, in a calm tone.
"Oh my God. Please don't tell me he's dead. Please, Jesus, don't tell me that he's gone. Please don't tell me he's gone," Reynolds said. "Please don't tell me, officer, that you just did this to him. You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his licence and registration, sir."
A pause, and the officer says, "Get the female passenger out." She leaves the car, her phone hits the ground as she's ordered to her knees, and you hear the snap of handcuffs. You also hear her daughter, held by an officer at the scene, screaming. Many viewers saw this after the fact, as a replay. Others, including those who knew Castile and Reynolds personally, saw it happen to them live.
Reynolds came back to livestreaming the next day, showing the world her grief. "It's my first time crying since all of this happened," Reynolds said, livestreaming from a different Facebook account (Reynolds said police took her phone as evidence), surrounded by reporters, friends and activists. She said she was trying to be strong for her daughter.
"It could have been you. It could have been you, or you, or you," Reynolds said. "It could have been any of us. I want justice." She broadcast as her friends prayed with her.
Livestreaming was already an established tool for accountability. Tim Pool's 20-hour broadcast from the day Occupy Wall Street protesters were removed from their New York City encampment in 2011 helped demonstrate to activists that livestreaming had potential as an alternative to depending on cable news coverage. Pool became a first-of-his-kind "streamer", a presence at protests who helped bring people into the crowd.
"The ability to broadcast events in real time allows for the viewing of images and events that would otherwise be filtered like incidents of police brutality or government abuse," Benjamin Burroughs, an assistant professor of emerging media at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, said in a recent email to the Washington Post.
"One thing that [live-streaming] can do is create an increased sense of proximity to distant suffering and images of violence."
As Facebook's users continue to stream varied experiences through Live, the company is going to have to decide which of these the world can - or can't - see, particularly when those experiences contain both graphic imagery and vital information. Reynolds' stream is an example of this, and of its power: it transformed how the story of Castile's death - and her grieving at his death - is told. Her perspective from inside that car became that of her viewers, and she relied on no one else to tell it.