How Meerkat is Going to Change the 2016 Election for Every Campaign, Reporter and Voter

Every few minutes over the last few days, my phone vibrates with another notification that another person I follow on Twitter has joined Meerkat. Everywhere I have gone here at South by Southwest, from the convention center to the food trucks, people are talking about Meerkat. And if that same discussion is not happening at every media outlet and presidential campaign around the country, they are making a huge mistake.

If 2004 was about Meetup, 2008 was about Facebook, and 2012 was about Twitter, 2016 is going to be about Meerkat (or something just like it).

Now admittedly, no one seems to know how to use the thing yet. Most of what I have seen thus far is either jumpy streaming of events or uncomfortably awkward reporters talking to their followers. Meerkat has also hit a bump in the road with Twitter cutting off access to their Social Graph. But whether it is Meerkat, Periscope or someone else, the potential for a service that makes livestreaming this easy is limitless. It could do to television what blogs did to newspapers by removing many of the financial and structural advantages of legacy media institutions.

Think about it this way: Up until about two weeks ago, broadcasting an event live required a large and quite expensive satellite truck, a ton of expensive cables and expensive satellite time. Now you can do it with your phone — the same machine you use to text, check Instagram, hail an Uber, and play Candy Crush.

So how will this change politics in 2016?

  1. This year’s “47 Percent Moment” will be on live video.
    Every minute — literally every minute — of every day of the campaign will be available live to anyone who wants it, no matter where they are. This weekend, I watched some of Jeb Bush’s New Hampshire event while waiting in line at the grocery store. This sort of raw footage is something I could only have seen previously by watching C-SPAN’s Road to the White House coverage and even I, someone who did politics for a living, would never do that unless under duress. This is a good thing (not just for people waiting in line places), because it breaks down barriers between the voters and campaigns. It allows people across the country to see events the way voters in New Hampshire and Iowa do, without the filter of TV networks deciding what events deserve their coverage.
  2. The lines between TV and print reporter will be further blurred.
    The insatiable 24/7 appetite of cable news for punditry has already turned many print reporters into television stars. Meerkat will dramatically accelerate this trend. As the campaign heats up, more and more print reporters will supplement their articles, tweets and blog posts with live video reporting and analysis. Having different forms of audience engagement is critical to the success of the media, and reporters can no longer be pigeon-holed by medium. This trend will be dangerous if our limited supply of objective reporters joins the inexhaustible supply of pundits.
  3. Greater engagement opportunities for Millenials.
    Meerkat will give media outlets and the campaigns the ability to stream live content right to where Millennials like it most — their phones. Millenials increasingly are watching their TV online and on-demand. The broadcast TV model of political coverage almost seems as if it were specifically designed to miss all but the most politically interested Millenials. If I didn’t know better, I would think it was a voter suppression strategy to keep young people out of our elections. Meerkat will open up new opportunities for engagement and audience development with young people.
  4. The Value of a Campaign’s Twitter Followers Just Went Way Up. @BarackObama has 56 million Twitter followers — it’s the third largest account in the world. Only Katy Perry and Justin Bieber have more, although Taylor Swift is right on his tail. Now, imagine that 10 percent of his followers join Meerkat in the coming months — that’s a potential audience of nearly 6 million people at any given time, more than the Sunday Shows or any cable news programming could dream of. Up until now, only the broadcast and cable networks had the power to reach that many people with video at any one time. The campaigns and media outlets with the largest number of engaged followers will have real structural advantages.

It will take a while for the political and media worlds to figure out how to best use this technology for communication and engagement. The first efforts are likely to be clunky and awkward in a way that only reporters and political operatives can pull off. But by the time voters start showing up at VFW halls and high schools to caucus next year, it will be clear that yet another new technology is in the process of revolutionizing our politics.

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