That’s the danger of building on someone else’s platform. You never know when they’ll pivot into your business and steamroll you. Last night, that happened to Meerkat.
The livestreaming app was built entirely on Twitter, piggybacking on it for identity, communication, and distribution. Yesterday morning, Twitter confirmed reports that it had acquired an unlaunched competing app called Periscope, which also allows public livestreams, but also private streaming and replays of old broadcasts.
10 hours later, Buzzfeed’s Matt Honan reported that Twitter was cutting off Meerkat’s access to the Twitter social graph. But Meerkat founder Ben Rubin tells me “the product is here to stay, the team is here to stay, and definitely the vision is here to stay.”
If you’d rather watch what happens next, check out this recording of my Meerkat stream from an hour ago at a SXSW BBQ
What Exactly Does “Cut Off” Mean?
Previously, when you joined Meerkat, you’d sign up with your Twitter account, and Meerkat would have you automatically follow everyone you follow on Twitter. That way, when people you follow on Twitter start a stream, you’d get a push notification alerting you to watch, and you’d see their ongoing stream on the Meerkat home screen.
Now, anyone who joins Meerkat won’t get to auto-follow those they follow on Twitter. They’ll have to manually follow people in Meerkat to build a social graph, which is relatively tough to do right now, as there’s no user search in the app. Users probably won’t be able to easily recreate their Twitter interest graph, they’ll hear about fewer streams, and get fewer viewers. That makes Meerkat less sticky and more likely to fail or get beat by Periscope.
What’s that doesn’t mean is that anyone who had already joined Meerkat before Twitter cut it off would lose their followers or people they’re following. The action doesn’t apply retroactively. Comments are still syndicated to Twitter, and links to streams are still auto-tweeted.
Cutting off access to the social graph is a strategy Facebook has employed several times to apps like Voxer and MessageMe. Its rationale was that they were essentially stealing its friend lists without contributing anything back to its feed. But really, it just so happened that that they were also using the supposedly open Find Friends API to compete with Facebook Messenger.
Early on, platforms offer open APIs in hopes of building a developer ecosystem that would drive usage of the platform’s own service. Eventually, though, when they develop a valuable social graph and don’t need help growing as much, they can become stingier. Apps doing something completely different are left alone. But apps that stray to close to competing with the platform itself come into the crosshairs.
What’s rough is that Twitter’s platform policy specifies that developers must “Avoid Replicating the Core Twitter Experience”. But Meerkat didn’t know that Twitter had secretly acquired Periscope in January and Twitter didn’t have native livestreaming functionality…until yesterday morning. And judging by the fact that it didn’t have a product update ready to fix what changed, Twitter might not have given Meerkat much notice that it was getting the boot.
Meerkat’s Next Move
“We are working on creative ways to help new users to build a graph” Rubin, from Meerkat and its Israeli parent company Life On Air, tells me. “It’s true that it will take us more time in the very immediate future to help new users (as of last night) build a community inside meerkat but some solutions will be available soon.”
While Twitter was a convenient host for Meerkat, Rubin doesn’t think its interest graph was perfectly aligned with livestreaming audiences. “There’s a new graph to be made here. It’s a totally new medium. If I want to read your tweets doesn’t mean I want to see you live, and also ‘How would discovery work in this medium?’ is a big question we feel we have good answers to.”
My suggestion would be for Meerkat to immediately switch to phone numbers as an identity system. It’s an open resource that no one can rip out from under it. Meerkat could let users sign in with their phone number, upload their phone contacts, and then auto-follow their friends that way.
Meerkat could still let people connect their Twitter accounts for auto-tweeting their stream links and syndicating their comments there. But Twitter would become optional. Those without it could be provided with a link to their stream to post elsewhere on the web, and their comments could just live in Meerkat.
The startup could also let you Find Friends through other options. One way to stick it to Twitter would be adding Facebook’s Find Friends options (though that’s shaky for the same reason as Twitter was). Email contacts is another possibility. Ideally, Meerkat would build a suggestion tool to help you find people you’re likely to want to follow, say, because several of your friends follow them, or because they match your topics of interest, like tech or sports.
Bigger Than One App?
As for the future of its business, Rubin explains “The main reason to use meerkat was not harmed. You can still tweet live video to all your followers, and Meerkat will help your stream to travel in the speed of a tweet.”
Yesterday I reported that when Twitter courted Periscope, a source said its pitch was that video would be major part of Twitter’s future. The acquisition deal is said to have included a bunch of stock so if Periscope makes its parent company more succesful, the startup’s team will get richer. If Twitter is so serious about livestreaming, there must be something to it.
And that means other big social platforms like Facebook may be eying livestreaming too. Facebook could emerge as a potential acquirer for Meerkat or other livestreaming apps like Hang W/ or Betaworks’ Upclose, even though real-time content has not been its focus due to its filtered (delayed) News Feed. But Facebook could potentially barge into the real-time space by buying or building a livestreaming app.
In any case, Meerkat shouldn’t throw in the towel. Building functionality is easy. Building community is a lot tougher. The failure of Facebook’s Snapchat clones Poke and Slingshot proved that. Meerkat already has critical mass, especially amongst tech influencers. Their social graphs are already set up on Meerkat, and given the activity I’ve seen on it this morning, they aren’t ditching it just yet.
Meerkat should make Periscope fight for every user.