Meerkat — What’s the Big Deal?

No, we are not talking about that cute little animal indigenous to Africa and a member of the mongoose family. We are talking about the new social app, spelled with a “k” instead of a “c,” that was the single most discussed app innovation at the recent SXSW conference in Austin, and that, in its first two weeks of launch, acquired 120,000 purchasers. That figure is well over a million today.

For years now, people have been able to post videos on Facebook, to launch their own videos on YouTube, and to send videos to their friends. Founder Ben Rubin’s Meerkat, however, now allows people to live stream videos to their twitter accounts, as events are actually occurring, effectively publicizing those events to all of their followers at once in real time. What’s more, anyone’s followers can then share that twitter feed as well. In short, anywhere you can take an iPhone, you can send a video to all of your followers and, as well, save that video for future use and reference.

Twitter, however, has been quick to respond. Not to be “outdone,” it has purchased and launched its own similar app, Periscope, and has denied Meerkat access to it social graph. This means that followers of a Twitter account will not receive instant notification that a Meerkat video is being sent, one of the things that made the Meerkat app so great to begin with.

What Now?

Whether Meerkat survives or not, given the restrictive response of Twitter, there is no doubt that the concept has completely transformed the use of Twitter as a social media venue. Consider, for a moment, just a few of the implications:

1. Political Campaigns: Remember the Romney 47% speech that he gave to potential donors? It was video-recorded by a restaurant employee who then had to send that video to David Korn at Mother Jones Magazine, in order to get it into public view. When campaign speeches are given, they of course are recorded by major television and cable networks, but how many people have access to their television sets during those times? Not many. And how many people tune in to the evening news programs to watch and listen to those speeches? Not as many as should, probably. Now, however, campaigners will need to be very careful about what they say, knowing that their words are being captured and streamed by live video to any number of followers of attendees who have iPhones and can reach their large followings immediately. Now, the restaurant worker at the Romney speech in 2008 probably did not have a Twitter account with a huge following. News reporters and other public figures, however, do, and they will “tweet” to their followers in real time — followers who then will share that video with their social media friends and followers. Live stream video via Twitter in these circumstances can be a real “game changer.”

2. News Reporting: There is already an understanding and a realization that every common citizen can become an instant “reporter” by filming video of events as they happen. Consider, for example, that huge amount of video feed of the Ferguson, MO demonstrations during last summer’s uproar over the killing of an unarmed teen by a police officer. Many of those videos were later shared on news networks. Live streaming via a Twitter feed, by a reporter with a huge following, however, can dramatically impact the public response time to such events and dramatically alter governmental responses.

3. Privacy Issues: This has continued to be a huge issue of debate, since camera and video apps have been installed on phones and tablets with the ability to send those photos or videos to any social media or news outlet. Apparently not, thus far. “Rules” and regulations as they relate to privacy have not kept pace with technology in this arena, and it is unlikely that regulating bodies will ever really catch up. People now have to accept the fact that, when they are in public places, the chances that their behaviors and words will be made public are real and unavoidable, without any editing possibilities. Consider, for example, the recent spate of photos of Walmart shoppers in ridiculous and embarrassing clothing; consider the videos of looters in Ferguson, MO that have led to a number of arrests. We no longer have the expectation of privacy, and Meerkat and other aps like it will only increase the lack of privacy for private and public figures alike.

Meerkat, and other similar apps that are likely to follow, has now transformed how we get information and news. No matter where a Twitter follower may be, and no matter what other activity he may be engaged in at the time, the opportunity to receive and to share real time video is now a “done deal.” No one should have an expectation of privacy or insulation from this new phenomenon.

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