Would you watch a live streamed beheading?

Imagine gathering online crowds around live moments of scandal and horror. Because that’s what a website publisher could do with a soonfeed widget.

In 1949, 3-year old Kathy Fiscus fell into a well in California. In the 49 hours that followed, 5,000 citizens headed to the well. Not to help, but to watch.


Public beheadings: The French did it until 1939. US-ally Saudi Arabia is doing it to this day.

Public beheadings: The French did it until 1939. US-ally Saudi Arabia is doing it to this day.


In 1987, baby Jessica McClure fell into a well in Texas. On that occasion, millions of Americans watched the rescue thanks to CNN, the country’s first 24-hour news network.


Today, when someone falls down a well, falls on the red carpet or falls from public grace, the internet brings it to the world. “Rubbernecking” has never been so easy to traffic.


It’s typically associated with morbid curiosity, but rubbernecking is a symptom of other emotions too. Shock. Voyeurism. Empathy. Schadenfreude. If you’ve ever Googled a name, followed a celebrity news story or used Facebook, you’ve probably stretched your neck farther than you’d care to admit.


Everyone loves a good train wreck. We want to see what all the fuss is about, that euphemistic justification for sneaking a peek at a nude pic of Jennifer Lawrence or watching a video of a man lopping off another man’s head.


Rubbernecking in realtime


Rubbernecking is typically a response to an incident that’s already taken place. We chance upon a car accident and crane our necks to see the damage (hence the introduction of “incident screens“). We hear about a friend’s meltdown at a party and head to Facebook to witness the fallout. We see a news headline about hacked celebrity photos and google “J Law nude pics” without reading the story.


What could be more compelling for a rubbernecker than gawking from the comfort (and safety) of a device? Rubbernecking in realtime, that’s what.


When something’s happening live, it evokes another powerful emotion. Fear. Fear of not being part of the crowd. Fear of missing out on something that others have joined.

Relax, these happenings are hypothetical.



Soonfeed makes it possible


Web and mobile tools for live streaming, live blogging, live chatting et al can bring just about anything online in realtime. With a phone, a 3/4G network and a free live streaming app (such as Ustream or Bambuser / UPDATE: or Periscope, Meerkat etc), Jihadi John can stream a beheading live from the deserts of Iraq or the streets of Melbourne. An EU official and his pink flamingo can host an Ask Me Anything” chat on Reddit. And the IDF can (and does) live tweet missile strikes on Gaza.


To package content as a scheduled “happening” online, a website publisher need only embed the soonfeed widget and add the happening beforetime. Audiences can then discover, discuss and Join for an alert as it happens in realtime.


It would (probably) be legal


A soonfeed features only times and headlines of happenings. It does not host the live content itself. When the happening starts, users who’ve clicked Join will get an email or calendar alert with a link that takes them to the happening. So if a soonfeed publisher decides to host the content in the darkest recesses of the web, users can only access it via a soonfeed alert.


When nude celebrity photos appeared on 4chan recently, the site eventually removed them, citing violation of copyright. Even Reddit banned several “fappening” sub-reddits because commenters were linking to the pics.


With a soonfeed, however, the content hasn’t happened yet. It’s nothing more than a feed of headlines from the future. And content that doesn’t exist can be neither copyrighted nor illegal. A soonfeed is no more responsible for a happening than a TV guide is responsible for a TV show. Right?


It could influence outcomes


When crowds gather online, they can influence outcomes.


A conversation begins as soon as the happening appears in a soonfeed beforetime, and continues as the happening arcs in realtime. So a #rubbernecking soonfeed could be more than just a platform for drawing attention. It could be a forum for debate, and a catalyst for change.


Between the moment a soonfeed headline appears and the start of the happening, a Twitter hashmob of world leaders could pressure Netanyahu into postponing an IDF missile strike. Ryan Gosling’s lawyers could scare hackers into keeping that sex tape off the internet. And a crowd of Beliebers (perhaps Justin himself?) might convince a slighted fan not to kill herself. When crowds gather around happenings in realtime, amazing things can happen.


UPDATE 25 Sep: Here’s a timely example of a happening influencing outcomes beforetime: a webpage called EmmaYouAreNext.com appeared a few days ago claiming that nude photos of Emma Watson would be posted on 4chan at a scheduled time. The announcement (via Reddit) outraged the interwebs before it was revealed as a hoax. Now the story continues to generate intrigue, debate and PR, all because of a happening that was nothing more than a promise of a happening.


It would be wrong.


Will we allow soonfeed publishers to announce death and horror before it happens? Of course not. Unless it’s a live chat with an EU official married to a pink flamingo, obviously.


Richard Medic is Chief of Happenings at happeningo.com digital agency and founder of Soonfeed.