After Jon Ward happened upon Meerkat, the newest live-video streaming app, he couldn't stop thinking about the reporting potential. As the senior political correspondent for Yahoo News, Ward knew the technology involved is anything but revolutionary. Yet there was something captivating about Meerkat.
What was it? "Probably a mixture of timing and simplicity," he says. Ward knew immediately that he wanted to be the first reporter to broadcast an interview from the Meerkat platform, which launched Feb. 27.
The platform was originally a side project from the people behind Air, a team that has been working on the live streaming front for a while. Meerkat almost immediately began to generate buzz, at least in part because of its direct integration with Twitter. The free app piggybacks off users' Twitter information. It requires a Twitter account to log in and broadcasts all interaction with the app from that account. A new Meerkat stream, for example, is announced via a Tweet from the broadcaster's feed, or a push notification to followers.
Why the urgency? Because Meerkat streams are primarily meant to be live events — a viewer can tune in while the broadcast is ongoing, but only then. It is possible for the broadcaster to save the feed after the fact and upload it to a third-party site such as YouTube, but the main draw is definitely the live streaming.
You've probably heard all this, though. Meerkat has been a media darling in the past week, as tech writers the Internet over have rushed to download the app and stream something, anything. I've watched snow fall over New York City, participated in a disorienting jaunt through a San Francisco neighborhood and, in the early days of the app, stared at a black screen for several minutes waiting for the feed to be secured (Note: The reliability of fetching the feed has improved greatly since the launch).
Meerkat is fun. But it is not groundbreaking. Live video streaming has been around the digital block. Ustream, which engages over 70 million people each month, was founded in 2007. And the pathway to 2015 is peppered with other live streaming services, some more successful than others. Bambuser, TwitCasting and Meerkat's own predecessor, Yevvo, come to mind.
So what has Meerkat got? Simplicity, and timing.
Ustream CEO Brad Hunstable is adamant that 2015 will be a great year for video. Beyond his personal vested interest in this prediction, however, the narrative fits. Social platforms have been pushing this format, and video from particularly newsworthy events has captured the public's imagination. Meerkat fancies itself a journalist's, and citizen-journalist's, tool — used to capture and report breaking news in real time.
But Meerkat's timing might be a little too good. Business Insider recently reported that Twitter, in its bid to get in on the video game, bought a Meerkat competitor called Periscope. Periscope is still in the beta phase, but its launch could affect Meerkat's relationship with Twitter, which, despite the close links, is still informal.
Because Periscope has yet to be released, it isn't possible to comment on how it compares to Meerkat in terms of simplicity. Meerkat is attractive for the low bar to entry it presents to those just wishing to share. The video is not incredibly high quality, but the experience of watching a stream is intimate in a way that is particularly en vogue in today's social media landscape.
Of course, filling a simple niche is risky in the sense that it depends upon us, the users, wanting the niche to be filled and opening the app once the stories are written and the hype has passed. Unlike Ustream, which has diversified to cater to our media, advertising and interpersonal communication streaming needs, Meerkat aims to do just one thing: engage us in social live streaming.
Jon Ward's first interview using the platform was with U.S. Sen. John Thune. The South Dakota Republican seemed pleased to be talking on the forefront of the mobile world, and Ward says most potential interviewees he has approached have been receptive to the idea of a live broadcast interview.
"The app is simple, and the concept is easy for them to understand," Ward says. But there are challenges: It can be difficult to produce a streamlined interview live — or to simply hold the phone steady and focused. But the intimate informality does offer viewers a peek into the process of journalism. This isn't something every journalist and interviewee will be comfortable with, but it is something that Ward finds unique and exciting.
Is there an appetite for Meerkat? Ward certainly has one, and we won't have to wait long to see if it spreads.
Tajha Chappellet-Lanier is the social media intern at NPR.