When Congressman Scott Peters walked into the House chamber on Wednesday, the California Democrat had no idea that video from his smartphone would soon be seen the world over. But, as a legislative sit-in to force a vote on gun control wore on and C-SPAN's cameras were shut down, Peters received a text from a staffer offering a simple—and pivotal—suggestion: “Why don’t you download Periscope?”

In the next few hours, more than 20 streams popped up on Periscope and Facebook Live, many of them from Representatives who had never used the tools before.

Live streaming is nothing new: YouTube has supported live events since 2011 and both Periscope and Facebook's mobile streaming feature launched last year. Additionally, YouTube announced this week that an upcoming update to its mobile app will add Periscope-like live streaming.

But streaming was new to Congress. “I had no idea what I was doing,” Peters said in an interview with Consumer Reports. Commenters told him to rotate the phone into landscape mode for a better angle and advised the politicians to get multiple streams going, since too many viewers can cause a feed to crash.

More lessons learned on the fly: Streaming is a big battery and data drain. Peters says he made multiple battery swaps and charges during the 24-hour-plus sit-in. He also never logged into the House Wi-Fi network, and so used up 4.6 gigabytes of mobile data.

Even though Democrats walked away from the sit-in without getting to vote on firearms legislation, Peters credits live streaming with amplifying their message. “Everybody in the world was able to see exactly what was going on in real time—that's the only reason that this event was relevant” he says. “If we had not been able to turn this camera on and show people what was happening, it would have been a Democratic caucus meeting.”

Like Peters, you never know when the next stream-worthy moment will strike, so here’s a quick-start guide to three top streaming services. 

Periscope

How it works: Periscope, which is owned by Twitter, uses a dedicated app (Android and iOS), so you’ll need to make an account or sign in with Twitter credentials. To begin a stream, tap the camera icon at the bottom of the screen, write a title, and hit the “Start Broadcast” button. By default, streams are publicly viewable, but you can make yours private by hitting the lock icon on the “Start Broadcast” screen; from that screen, you can also enable or disable live chat, choose whether or not to share your location, and auto-share a broadcast link to your Twitter feed.

Fun features: During a stream, use gestures to control Periscope; for instance, double tapping the screen switches between the front- and rear-facing cameras, and pulling down from the top of the screen will end the feed. Also fun: Press-and-hold in the center of the screen to pull up the new “Sketch” tool, which lets you doodle, sportscaster-style.

Downsides: Broadcasts are saved for replay for only 24 hours, unless you add the hashtag #save at the end of the title. And, though there’s no limit to the length of a stream, if too many people are watching, streams have been known to crash.  

Facebook Live

How it works: Anyone with a Facebook account and a smartphone can use Live. In the Facebook app (Android and iOS), tap “What’s on your mind?” and select “Live Video.” From there, give the video a name and choose your audience (e.g. "Public" or "Friends Only"), tap "Go Live,” and boom, you’re online. When you end the stream, videos are automatically saved in your timeline for replay later on.

Fun features: While you’re broadcasting, you can add and remove Instagram-style filter effects, and comment back and forth with viewers. A recent update lets you initiate a stream from a Facebook event or group page and allows commenters to post reactions—Like, Love, Wow, Sad, and so on—as they can on any regular status.

Downsides: Feeds cannot exceed 30 minutes in length, which means if you’re trying to broadcast the full-length of a school play or dance recital, you’ll have to break it up.  

SnapChat

How it works: Although the wildly popular ephemeral messaging app doesn’t offer the continuous feeds other streaming services do, its “My Story” feature lets you string multiple snaps together into a complete tale. From the main camera view in the app (Android and iOS), press and hold the shutter button to record a video. Once you’re done, tap the “T” icon at the top of the screen to add a caption, then hit the square button on the bottom of the screen to add the clip to a story, and finally press the “Send” arrow in the lower-right corner to post.

Fun features: You can easily add effects, like fast-forward and slo-mo, to videos; after you’ve recorded a clip, swipe from right-to-left to access the effects menu. The app’s myriad lenses and goofy filters are also available for videos; in camera view, press-and-hold on the center of the image before you start filming to bring up those options.

Downsides: By design, Snapchat videos do not last forever; individual snaps auto-delete after 10 seconds, but ones associated with a story stick around for one full day.

Copyright © 2005-2016 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.