If you’ve been reading any kind of news (or your Twitter feed), you may have been wondering why everyone’s been talking about a small, furry mammal as of late. But the Meerkat in question isn’t a fuzzy animal native to Africa; it’s a livestreaming app that launched March 10th and gained traction thanks to buzz at SXSW.
How does it work? Meerkat connects your phone camera to your Twitter feed; once you’ve installed the app, you type in a status and hit the “stream” button—and just like that, a link goes out to your Twitter followers with live video from wherever it is you’re pointing the camera.
The hope behind the app is that it (and others like it) will expand the reach of citizen journalism. At the moment, when events happen in the world, they’re tweeted and hashtagged, and people can follow along on Facebook and Twitter. By also using an streaming app like Meerkat, broadcasters can share what they’re seeing as it unfolds. Things like riots and protests could be viewed in real-time without any form of private or governmental filters.
But why the fuss over Meerkat specifically, when there are others like it? That has to do with the relationship it has with Twitter. Originally, the app pulled information about your Twitter followers from Twitter itself, so that it could immediately connect you with those people on Meerkat. But Twitter—who recently acquired a similar app called Periscope—was none too happy with Meerkat and crippled the app’s reach. (A tweet still goes out via the app, but it no longer can access the “social” part of the social network.) Naturally, that drew a ton of attention to this brand-new app.
Now if you want to find other people and their streams, you’ll have to catch all of it via the Meerkat app directly. There already some famous people who’ve wholeheartedly embraced it, like Late Night host Jimmy Fallon. (Who, with his 23 million followers, may havetemporarily broken the service.) You can also catch novel bits of journalism, like Jimmy Kimmel being interviewed by USA Today as it happens.
Will the app take off beyond this initial burst of attention? It’s unclear. When Twitter first hit the scene, no one could imagine the usefulness of a service that limited you to 140 characters. Now its seen as a crucial part of any brand’s social media presence. Let’s Plays gave way to Twitch streaming and now people make a comfortable living doing commentary while they play through Minecraft or Destiny. If used effectively (not just for boring or creepy purposes), Meerkat could fuel the growth of a new way to keep people informed, complete with its own breakout stars.
But given that people need to be following you on Twitter to see what you’re doing on Meerkat, building a fanbase for one app through another app seems like a daunting task. To be Meerkat-famous, you’ll first need to be Twitter-famous. If Meerkat can shake off its association with Twitter (which Twitter would be happy with, no doubt), it could be the “next big thing.” Or it could be another high profile app that goes nowhere.