Featured Image by Hans Hillewaert (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Like designers at New York Fashion Week, app developers at South by Southwest use the conference to show off their latest, hottest creations. Just replace the catwalks and models with slick mobile apps and flashy new technologies, and you’ve got one of the showiest, most dramatic events in tech all year.
Some apps make it big. Twitter, for example, debuted at SXSW in 2007, and Foursquare made waves in 2012. Many apps, though, slip into obscurity. With so many new platforms competing for attention, it can difficult to rise above the noise.
This year, the app in the spotlight was a live-streaming video platform called Meerkat. While it officially launched for iOS on February 27, it seemed to explode in popularity a mere 48 hours into the start of SXSW Interactive. The ephemeral app is tightly integrated with Twitter, and allows users to send “Meercasts” — live video streams — to their followers.
Signing up is easy if you already have a Twitter account, and your Meercasts can be tweeted to your followers. Unlike Snapchat, though, where followers can watch someone’s video at any time, you can only catch Meercasts in real-time. If you miss the window to watch, there is no archive or Snapchat-style story function where you can see what was filmed. The whole experience is immediate and exclusive; once it’s gone, it’s gone.
There’s no doubt that Meerkat’s sudden spike in popularity at SXSW drew attention, but not all of it was positive. On March 13, the first day of SXSW Interactive, Twitter abruptly pulled the plug on Meerkat. It denied the platform access to its social graphs, which meant that Meerkat could no longer access the details of Twitter users and their relationships to each other. Since then Meerkat has moved quickly to build up its own user base, but it’s no longer as easy as it was when they could simply co-opt Twitter’s users.
Meerkat is hardly the first platform to take advantage of live-streaming video. YouTube allows users to stream content directly to their audiences, and Ustream allows users to stream live video to just about any device using only a webcam and internet access. Even Twitter itself, possibly feeling threatened by Meerkat, purchased live-streaming start-up Periscope on March 9, just days before it cut ties with Meerkat. Twitter paid slightly less than $100 million for the start-up, which is a strong indicator that any apps promising live, instantaneous action have a bright future.
Snapchat could be viewed as the first generation of this new breed of apps, and Meerkat the second. With live-streaming platforms, one minute audiences could watch breaking news unfold live anywhere in the world, and the next minute they could be in the front row of a major sporting event. The application of these kinds of apps is limitless.
It becomes obvious, then, why the platform shows promise. It has already been adopted by some big names, including late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon, electronic DJ Diplo and television show American Idol. Search ‘#meerkat’ on Twitter and you’ll find many other people using the platform to live-stream performances and drive audience engagement. But, as with many nascent social media platforms, it’s hard to say if Meerkat will be here for the long haul. It may be the next big platform, or it’s place in the limelight may be as fleeting as its own video streams.