Why Meerkat, the breakout app of SXSW, is more than a flash in the pan

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AUSTIN—Meerkat is either the most annoying or groundbreaking app to strike it big at the South by Southwest Interactive festival. Live-streaming video, particularly on Twitter, has incredible potential: Meerkat has already been used to show the world a demonstration from Ferguson and a U.S. Secretary of Commerce swearing-in ceremony. But most of the 3-week-old iOS app’s 100,000-plus users are live-streaming complete garbage, like endless shaky clips of other people using Meerkat.

Early adopters, journalists, and brands love Meerkat because it’s a new platform to experiment with, but that doesn’t mean much in terms of longterm mainstream success. There’s a virtual graveyard full of apps that caught on at SXSW and promptly flamed out in the real world. But Meerkat has two advantages: More than two years of back-end development work to ensure high-quality live-streaming, and competition from Twitter.

meerkat rubin Caitlin McGarry

Meerkat CEO Ben Rubin used South by Southwest Interactive to talk about his big plans for the app.

The great Twitter crackdown

Meerkat built its platform to overlap with Twitter to gain the maximum amount of early users. You use your Twitter login to sign up for the app, then then Meerkat tweets for you when you start a live-stream. All of your Twitter followers received push notifications when you joined the app and started streaming. Or at least that’s how it used to work

Meerkat hype skyrocketed at SXSW after Twitter cut off the app’s access to its social graph—meaning your Twitter followers would no longer receive a notification when you started a Meerkat live-stream—because the axe fell the same day Twitter finalized its purchase of live-streaming app Periscope. But Meerkat was bracing for Twitter’s inevitable reaction and was already working to detangle itself from the network that helped launch it. Two of those features, in-app search for users and the ability to follow a user from Meerkat’s website, were launched as SXSW Interactive was drawing to a close this week.

Meerkat has to beef up its service because Twitter has its own live-streaming feature in the works, thanks to the Periscope acquisition, a deal that was in the works before Meerkat launched. Periscope reportedly works similarly to Meerkat—though the app has been in beta since before Twitter snagged it—but it’s unclear if Periscope will be folded into Twitter in the form of in-tweet live video streams, like real-time Vine, or if the platform is planning a looser integration. According to TechCrunch, there are two key differences between Periscope and Meerkat: Periscope lets you record broadcasts to air later and also lets you set up private streams. Meerkat has no plans to allow video archiving in the near future.

“We saw a community on Twitter, and we thought we need to unlock the habit for people who would be inclined more to live-stream content to their followers,” Meerkat cofounder Ben Rubin said during a Yahoo tech talk at SXSW. “Twitter made sense. We knew Twitter would be upset at some point. We didn’t know they would buy a company in this same space.”

Making Meerkat better—and fast

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Meerkat is moving quickly to add new discovery tools.

Though Meerkat is moving quickly to improve its service ahead of Periscope’s launch—and recruiting high-profile users like Jimmy Fallon, who Meerkats his rehearsal monologues—there is still plenty of work to be done to make the app a lasting success.

The app currently requires that you keep a close eye on Twitter (or have Meerkat open constantly) so you don’t miss a live-stream. The end result: a constant feeling of FOMO. At one point during SXSW, my lock screen was clogged with Meerkat notifications about all the streams I had missed and could never watch because the app doesn’t archive videos to watch later. That could be why 20 percent of Meerkat users watch more than two hours of videos a day—if you don’t watch them as they happen, you miss out. (The app does, however, let you save your own videos to your Camera Roll, without the Meerkat app’s graphical overlay, in case you capture something really classic and want to repost it somewhere later.)

There’s also no way to find friends on other social networks or import contacts to discover new streams to watch.

“Right now it’s very limited and we acknowledge that, because there’s a lot of work to do in discovery,” Rubin said. ”The whole question is about what is discovery on a real-time platform—what does it mean? I feel the team has a very good answer for this and we’re going to show that very soon.”

The fact that Meerkat caught on first with journalists and Silicon Valley types also doesn’t bode well for the app. Everyone knows that college kids pick the breakout hits, like Snapchat and Yik Yak. But Meerkat is clearly serious about iterating quickly, even putting a call on Wednesday for its users to join the app’s beta testing process.

The company also needs to decouple itself from Twitter altogether. Rubin said there plans for Meerkat to start its own network, and potentially work with Facebook or another platform to distribute video.

“Maybe the fact that [Twitter] escalated our decision-making might do something very beautiful in the early stages of the platform,” Rubin said. “I’m very grateful for Twitter to allow us to jump-start our vision on the platform.”

We’ll see if that early start can carry the app beyond South by Southwest and into the real world.

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