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

Caitlin McGarry | March 20, 2015
If Meerkat can continue to evolve quickly, it might survive Twitter's own live-streaming launch. (Despite its terrible videos.)

"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

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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