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Meerkat Brings Live Video Streaming to Twitter (and Beyond)

Is it just me or is social media getting progressively more, well, social? You’ve got Instagram for sharing pics, Snapchat for pics and vids, and now Meerkat for live video streaming. For those of you scratching your head, Meerkat is a live video streaming app that has made quite a splash on Twitter in recent weeks and, more importantly, may represent the next stage in the evolution of social media.

The Next Big Thing?

Less than a month old, Meerkat has enjoyed a hockey-stick-like adoption curve since its launch on February 27th. Aside from the ample evidence of early success – i.e. the masses clogging up the Twittersphere with seemingly endless streams of random video footage – perhaps the greatest proof of the app’s wide-ranging appeal is its recent use by such seemingly disparate luminaries as politico Jeb Bush and celebrity Jimmy Fallon (thankfully not together).

No surprise, Meerkat was the breakout app at the Interactive portion of SXSW last week in Austin, at least until Twitter cut off the app’s access to its social graph midstream (more on that in a bit). Apparently all anyone could do was talk about Meerkat and experiment with its novel functionality. By degrees, this led to some extreme behavior, as Casey Newman of The Verge relates: “The previous day, some Verge friends and I shot a three-way Meerkat of us Meerkatting each other. (It was self-indulgent, terrible, and watched by more than 100 people.)”

You know things are getting out of hand when you’re Meerkatting fellow Meerkatters…

Nutty Meerkatting antics aside, for my money the most interesting thing about Meerkat isn’t the service itself, but the idea behind it: the concept of live video streaming on social media.

How Meerkat Works

First and foremost, to stream with Meerkat you need an iPhone; at this point, the app is only available as an iOS app for Apple phones. An Android version is apparently in the works, but for now Android users must content themselves with downloading the “Meerkat-unofficial watcher app,” on Google Play, which allows you to at least view others’ Meerkat streams even if you can’t publish your own.

If you do have an iPhone, using Meerkat is pretty simple. Just download the Meerkat app, enter in your Twitter credentials, and start streaming away. The app allows you to schedule streams and, like its host Twitter, has “following” and “follower” buttons. However be warned, Meerkat enables real-time broadcasting in the truest sense of the word – the app doesn’t save your streams; if you want to record your streamed videos, you have to save them to your phone.

In its original configuration, Meerkat was built for social sharing throughout your Twitter network. Once you started a new Meerkat stream, all of your followers would receive push notifications. But then Twitter blocked Meerkat’s access to its social graph, effectively disabling this feature.

Why Didn’t Twitter Build It?

Which brings up an obvious question: if live social video streaming via Twitter’s platform is such a great thing, so much so that Twitter apparently felt sufficiently threatened by Meerkat to block access to their social graph, why didn’t Twitter anticipate this and build the app in the first place?

It’s not like there hasn’t been plenty of precedent for the technology. UStream, Livestream, and even YouTube all offer a live video feature. But as Timothy Lee points out in a recent article in Vox, these solutions are geared toward larger-scale professional broadcasts, while Meerkat has been designed for the masses. Twitch.tv, which allows people to live-stream video game play, is a closer analogue. Interestingly, Amazon bought it out in 2014.

They Will Now

In fact, Twitter has been working the problem for a few months now. No, they didn’t build a live streaming app themselves. Instead, they acquired one. On March 13th, Twitter made official their purchase of startup Periscope, a company that is in the process of building a live video streaming app similar to Meerkat. According to Business Insider, the deal had been closed for weeks prior to its official announcement, which would mean that Twitter was actively working on live video streaming prior to the Meerkat launch.

This suggests that Twitter may have been acting very shrewdly, using Meerkat as a controlled lab experiment to explore the viability of live video streaming on its popular social platform.

It May Be Too Late

Which brings us back to the unceremonious blocking of Meerkat from Twitter’s social graph—just as the app was reaching the height of its popularity at SXSW. Whether it was the product of a cold calculation or a defensive knee-jerk reaction, it may have had the opposite effect. As Jordan Crook of TechCrunch points out,Twitter’s blocking of Meerkat may have actually given the app a measure of street cred. In the days following the cut-off, Meerkat’s user base jumped 30%. Shortly thereafter, they closed on a $12 Series B funding round led by Greylock Partners, through which the app was apparently valued at $52 million post-investment.

These developments auger well for the fledging streaming app as it moves to decouple from Twitter altogether and operate on its own platform.

The Bottom Line

From a marketing perspective, it’s easy to recognize the utility of live social streaming for brands. Beyond the obvious applications, i.e. to create brand buzz and augment live event promotions, I can imagine countless “how do you…” campaigns cropping up in coming months, as digital marketers and advertisers start getting their heads around the possibilities of using live video streaming on social media to engage audiences and activate static social followers. Beyond business, just think of the impact of this new technology on politics, for which the 2016 election cycle will doubtless offer a tantalizing proof of concept.  

As with any evolution in technology, though, unfettered live social streaming carries with it many potential complications and implications, both seen and unseen. For one, it raises the consequences of butt dialing to a whole new level. On a more sober note, the prospect of streaming live video to the ever-expanding socialverse in real time evokes number of troubling privacy concerns; I can’t help but feel that Pandora’s Box has been wrenched open a little bit wider with the rollout of Meerkat.

That said, now that the technology has been brought to the masses, it’s a safe bet that live social video streaming, Meerkat or otherwise, is here to stay.

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