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Meerkat Madness: The Lure of the App du Jour

First impressions of a Twitter-based sensation

Meerkat feels like a gamechanger. But what is the game and how is it changing?

Ever since this heavily hyped app began to delight early adopters in recent days with a seamless ability to live-stream video on Twitter, it’s left the bewildering but intoxicating sense that something significant is happening. But what Meerkat will be exactly is elusive, perhaps even to the San Francisco-based tech firm, Life on Air, that created it.

The simplicity of its functionality is one of its virtues: You can either capture video from your smartphone and notify your Twitter followers that they can stream the footage in real time, or watch someone else do the same while interacting on screen via typed messages.

The intimacy and immediacy of this kind of one-to-many communication contains too much promise for innovators of all stripes to ignore. Count on a fascinating explosion of experimentation on this app in the coming weeks that will surely include media and marketing brands.

However, that will be a shame of sorts. Right now Meerkat is virgin territory unspoilt by inevitable commercial exploitation. It’s a magical place filled with the stumbling trial and error of geeks collectively discovering its ins and outs, ups and downs.

Of course, let’s not oversell this moment either. Clicking on a notification for a livestream at any random moment nowadays isn’t going to give you a guaranteed front seat to some brilliantly innovative telecast seemingly beamed from the distant future — far from it. What’s really going on right now is that more often than not you’re going to encounter someone you follow on Twitter fumbling around with the app just long enough until they quickly shut it off when they realize someone is watching their awkward first steps.

But it’s hard not to feel like we may be in the period before that ferment of experimentation starts bubbling. Just imagine the kind of unconventional storytelling to be done. Or how public figures could interact with their fans in a personalized way. Think of how this could work in the news business, where the kind of unmediated eyewitness reporting that’s already been streaming out of newsworthy locales like Ferguson, Miss., can find a new home. Maybe this will be a place for new talent to emerge or old talent to resurrect themselves in a vehicle quite different than the micro-burst world of Vine/Instagram/Snapchat.

Of course, in these early days, this kind of innovation is in short supply on Meerkat. Here’s a suggestion: Try going beyond the boundaries of your own Twitter feed and randomly search the Meerkat hashtag. With enough patience, you will be rewarded.

I crashed a dinner party among friends on a ski trip in  Akureyri, Iceland, where they toasted me by name in barely intelligible English. I peeked in on the Circuit of the Americas raceway in Austin, Texas, where the camera was so close to the track it vibrated whenever the cars passed.

The Meerkat host can’t see you, but they can see that you are seeing them. The unpolished, unfiltered imagery is reminiscent of what Snapchat aggregates in its Our Stories segments, but perhaps more powerful because of the kick you get from watching footage from somewhere live. It may be the closest we’ll get to teleportation.

What’s strange about Meerkat’s appeal is that a mere description of its functionality isn’t a jaw-dropper; there’s been countless live-streaming apps and websites for years. But there’s something about how easily Meerkat works off of the only social platform that truly captures life in real time.

The app may be the best barnacle ever to cling to the hull of the S.S. Twitter, though the host platform may have a conflicted relationship to its new sensation given Meerkat’s API was briefly shuttered. Poor Twitter; CEO Dick Costolo probably wishes the recently released native 30-second video cards released a few months ago got half the buzz of Meerkat. And though Twitter is surely the springboard that launched Meerkat, that may not necessarily mean it’s the only social-media platform the app sticks with in the future.

Right now Meerkat is perched in that exhilarating window of time when an immense world of possibilities lies in front of it, a spectrum ranging from multibillion-dollar monetization to joining the already overflowing dustbin of tech darlings that have gone bust from Friendster to Chatroulette.

As enamored as so many are with Meerkat today, there’s no guarantee even if it does manage to achieve massive scale that its charms will wear off even quicker than they took hold.

Which makes this period so enticing to play with this brand new toy before even the best-case scenario for Life on Air: Meerkat goes wildly viral and inevitably loses its cool. Mainstream success may not even be all it’s cracked up to be if Meerkat becomes the kind of vehicle for mass voyeurism some futurists have always feared is lurking in our not-distant future.

Meerkat has spent barely a week in the spotlight, and yet it feels right already to pre-emptively bemoan a lost paradise, like flannel-clad hipsters lamenting some forgotten corner of Brooklyn before gentrification turned their favorite dive bar into a Starbucks.

Let’s enjoy this fleeting moment before it’s too late.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this article described Life on Air as an “Israel-based” firm. Though its CEO is Israeli and has a division that operates out of Tel Aviv, the company is based in San Francisco.

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