There's a new social media fad that's going crazy on Twitter — people have started linking to a service called Meerkat. If you click these links fast enough, it will take you to a live video stream — probably of your friend doing something mundane like walking down the street or eating lunch.
Meerkat has attracted tens of thousands of users in just a couple of weeks. And it seems silly. But most social media startups seemed silly when they were founded. Instagram seemed frivolous. Twitter seemed downright ludicrous.
There have also been plenty of social startups that seemed silly and were silly — think of Yo or Ello. We don't know yet if Meerkat will be a big hit or a one-hit wonder.
Meerkat lets people broadcast live from their phones
To use Meerkat, you need two things: an iPhone and a Twitter account. You download the Meerkat app to your iPhone, enter your Twitter credentials, and can then start broadcasting live video with a few taps. (Right now, it's for iOS only, but an Android app is in the works.)
Here's an example. I borrowed my colleague Lauren Katz's phone and gave a tour of the Vox office. We captured video of the stream — though normally you would only get to see it live. The quality of the video is terrible, but that's mostly my fault for waving the phone around too quickly.
Meerkat is best seen as a cousin of other services like Twitter, Instagram, and Vine that allow people to share nuggets of information with their friends and the world. Unlike other video-sharing platforms such as YouTube, however, Meerkat streams are ephemeral. Once the live stream is over, the video disappears from the site. It's something like Snapchat, except that you're sharing with anyone who wants to watch, not just your friends.
Meerkat is different from most other video streaming services
Meerkat puts a new spin on the old concept of a live-streaming video service.
There are some well-known live-streaming video services out there, including UStream and Livestream. YouTube has a live video feature, too. But these services are geared toward large-scale, professional broadcasts such as corporate conferences or sporting events. Meerkat is simpler, cheaper, and better suited to amateurs.
Perhaps the closest analogue here is Justin.tv, a 2007 startup whose founder, Justin Kan, live-streamed his life on his site continuously for several months to generate interest in the company. Justin.tv was not a big hit, but it evolved into into Twitch.tv, which allows people to live-stream video-game play. It was acquired by Amazon last year.
Another live video–sharing app, Qik, was acquired by Skype in 2011 and has since shifted focus to sending private video messages.
The main thing Meerkat adds is a social media dimension. Meerkat broadcasts are automatically announced on the user's Twitter account to attract viewers. And viewers must log into Twitter, as well, allowing broadcasters to know who is watching them.
Ironically, Business Insider has reported that Twitter recently acquired a company that was building a live-streaming app called Periscope that works a lot like Meerkat. That service hasn't launched yet.
Most Meerkat streams are pretty boring — to strangers at least
If you look at random Meerkat streams (I did this by searching Twitter for the word "meerkat"), most of the broadcasts are pretty boring. I found a woman streaming her drive from Oregon to Washington State, a couple of women walking down the street in San Francisco, a guy hanging out at a mall, and a group of people at some kind of meeting.
However, looking at a random video isn't a good way to judge the service's utility. After all, if you looked at the average tweet or Instagram photo, it would look pretty boring, too. The point of Meerkat is to allow people to share snippets of their life with friends and family. And while watching snippets of a random person's daily life might be boring, getting a window into the life of your sister, best friend, or favorite celebrity might be more interesting.
Meerkat has only been around for a few weeks
Meerkat was created by a San Francisco–based startup that has undergone multiple rebrandings since its founding in 2012. The current incarnation has only been around since February.
The company previously created two apps called Yevvo and Air, but neither gained traction with users. Then, according to the Verge, one of the company's investors suggested building a simplified video-sharing app that just did one thing well: live video streaming. The result, which the company originally saw as a side project, has proved so popular with users that the company is now making the app its primary focus.
Sometimes internet fads turn into serious companies
Over the years, quite a few apps have suddenly caught the public's imagination. Some of these, like Twitter and Instagram, went on to become huge, successful companies. Others, like Yo and Ello, quickly fizzled out after a brief flurry of interest.
It's too soon to say which category Meerkat will be in, but there are some reasons for skepticism. For one thing, past efforts to build amateur live streaming apps have not been very successful. Justin Kam, the founder of Justin.tv, says he tried some of the same strategies Meerkat is pursuing before he finally gave up on live video streaming in favor of Twitch, the video-game streaming service he sold to Amazon.
On the other hand, sometimes a startup will find a sweet spot that similar startups previously missed. YouTube was far from the first video-streaming website, but it launched at exactly the right time and with exactly the right features to become a huge hit. Perhaps Meerkat will be the startup that finally figures out how to make live, amateur video a viable business.