Everything’s more interesting if it’s happening right now. Jokes seem funnier when you hear them told in person. A dense political debate becomes captivating when watched live on TV. Real-time performances carry a peculiar vividness and urgency you can’t get from something that already happened, even if it was just minutes or even seconds ago.
Dick Costolo should know this well. Twitter’s CEO got his start doing improv comedy in front of a live audience. He’s helped his company achieve its potential as an up-to-the-minute news source. Yet it’s a tiny new startup called Meerkat that’s equipped Twitter with a truly real-time way to share.
Meerkat is a live streaming video app that piggybacks on Twitter’s identity, distribution, and communication systems.
At any moment, you can start a broadcast of yourself on Meerkat, which trigger’s a tweet of the link to your stream and a notification to any of your Twitter followers who use its app. Anyone can tune in on the web or through Meerkat, and chime in with comments that are sent as Twitter @ replies. When you’re done, your video disappears unless you save it to your phone.
That’s it. And people love it. Meerkat has become a darling of Product Hunt that’s signing up plenty of tech’s elite and scoring praise from users.
[Update 9am PST 3/2/15: While some people joked that Twitter would acquire Meerkat by lunch time today, instead Twitter has shut down the ability to tweet on people’s behalf as of this morning. This in part cripples Meerkat, as the auto-tweets are the only way links to Meerkat streams are publicly distributed. In an appeal to the enforcement, Meerkat co-founder tweeted “Hi @dickc! today @ 6:30am @twitter blocked all outgoing tweets posted via @appmeerkat even though we work well within the Api -any idea why?”
The auto-tweets were a bit aggressive, in that they’d be sent if you ever tapped Stream or re-streamed someone else’s broadcast, and included the #meerkat hashtag as well. Some found these blasts on their behalf to be a surprise, though Meerkat warns users it will tweet for them.
Update 10:05am PST: Meerkat just tweeted “UPDATE: we are working with our friends @twitter to solve the issue. stay tuned!”, which implies service may be restored at some point soon.
Update: 10:15am PST: Meerkat’s ability to tweet is back and you can join my Meerkat discussion now about livestreaming, ephemerality, and policy enforcement.
Update: 10:30am PST: Twitter tells me “We don’t generally comment on individual cases.” Meerkat co-founder Ben Rubin says that the shut down of Meerkat’s auto-tweeting was automatic on Twitter’s part. It was not a rate limit issue, and Twitter has been “awesome” about helping restore service. To me, that makes it sound like Twitter’s automated anti-spam system shut down Meerkat.
Update 12:55am PST: Meerkat now says “UPDATE: Tweets are back! @twitter people, you are pretty awesome.”]
A slew of startups have swung at social live streaming and missed. Khosla Ventures-based one-to-one video streaming Sup is in mid-pivot after failing to gain traction. Betaworks’ Upclose launched last month, but the standalone product is a bit clunky. Yahoo bought and squandered a web-based broadcast startup called On The Air. Snapchat offers live one-to-one streaming but I don’t see it used or talked about much.
The consensus is that after plenty of others failing, Meerkat “just works”, in large part thanks to being built atop Twitter. It mirrors your Twitter graph, so anyone you follow or are followed by there is automatically connected to you on Meerkat. In app you’ll see any of you connections who currently on the air, but otherwise it doesn’t have its own feed. Meerkat streams go viral on Twitter instead.
That leaves Meerkat to focus on its value-add: dead simple broadcasting. There’s no complicated set up. No extra plugins people need to install to watch. Meerkat auto-tweets so you don’t even need to do extra promotion. You can schedule a stream for anytime in the next 24 hours, but the real joy is just hitting the button and watching viewers start showing up seconds later.
The only real downside to the reliance on Twitter is that Meerkat links live forever in tweets, even through the streams they lead to may be over and gone in a few minutes. That’s one thing Twitter could improve on if it built or bought something like Meerkat.
The startup’s challenge will be filling its app with enough compelling content to keep people tuning in. That means convincing average viewers to broadcast when they have something especially interesting to share, as well as recruiting more serious creators to distribute through its channel.
It’s possible Meerkat is just fad. Live broadcasting video is novel to some, but we’ll see if the average person find it interesting to broadcast or even just watch more than a few time. If it does look promising, bigger companies could move into the space with native platform advantages.
Earlier today I downloaded Meerkat, and seconds later I was broadcasting a demo of the Boosted Board electric skateboard as I rode through San Francisco. Comments telling me to keep my eyes on the road poured onto my screen. Later I streamed a rant about how major tech platforms are clamping down on freeloaders, as LinkedIn limits API access and YouTube stopped allowing creators to overlay sponsor logos on their videos.
Both experiences crystallized what’s special about Meerkat. This wasn’t a recorded video of me skateboarding. It was live. I could crash at any moment. The real-time aspect made it dramatic. And the rant dealt with a heady, obscure topic most people wouldn’t wade through a thousand-word article about. But a few dozen tuned into my Meerkat about it because the live, personal aspect made something boring seem kinetic.
This is why Twitter itself should be so interested in Meerkat. It one-ups Twitter on its own mission “To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.” Information only spreads if it has an audience, and nothing’s as compelling as live video.