You might not believe it from the Miller Lite pedicabs, Pepsi testimonial booths, and McDonald’s food trucks, but despite the ever-increasing corporate bloat that floats the annual South by Southwest gathering in Austin, Texas, it’s still an event for underdogs.
As this year’s festival comes to a close on Sunday, it’s once again clear: South-by’s film component has reliably gathered one of the most forward assemblies of independent talent in the country, and thousands of up-and-coming artists have elevated their profile by making the pilgrimage to its hefty music component. Meanwhile, more so with each passing year since coming into its own back in 1999, the interactive component of SXSW has distinguished itself as a vital launchpad for social technologies and the big ideas that come with them.
We get our collective gadget itches annually scratched around the globe by such conferences as the Consumer Electronics Show, and TechCrunch’s Disrupt series helps part the curtains on the motives and methods of startup culture. But the aggressively social and highly concentrated nature of SXSW Interactive makes it an ideal testing ground for experiments in social media. Twitter famously blew up everyone’s comparably heavy handsets here back in 2007. And Foursquare made its mark on the map in 2009. And services like Storify, GroupMe, and Foodspotting all found the tech turf of Austin to be extremely fertile ground.
But none of these success stories were the result of massive media campaigns or moneyed marketing blitzes; rather, they spread organically (well, digitally) across excited mobs of early-adopter types in close quarters. They offered thousands of people actively looking to connect with one another new ways to do so, a chance to define the cutting edge, and (most importantly) a way to be temporarily cooler than those slow to download.
After a relative dry spell of breakthrough apps at SXSW (and with some questioning whether the age of apps is over, the fervor surrounding this year’s big star felt both refreshing and familiar. Meerkat, a live streaming app created by Ben Rubin (who had a previous go at live video with the now-defunct Yevvo), allows users to broadcast live video from their phones, as well as host text discussions within each broadcast.
At SXSW, users quickly verbified the app, suddenly Meerkatting everything from panels and street performances to pedicab rides and pizza counters. Jimmy Fallon used Meerkat from his desk at a “Tonight Show” rehearsal, giving viewers a Fallon’s-eye view of the taping. Julia Louis-Dreyfus Meerkatted from a “Veep” event. And testing the boundaries of meta-broadcasting, some users Meerkatted each others’ Meerkats, creating a kind of virtual social hall of mirrors. And taking a cue from social media’s current taste for ephemerality, Meerkat streams aren’t stored anywhere and can only be viewed while they’re happening; Rubin has credited this sense of “spontaneous togetherness” for the app’s swift rise.
Factor in also the rise of documentary social media — the movement from static tweets and status updates to richer multimedia snippets. The popularity of Snapchat’s My Story function (which allows users to string “snaps” together into a public reel that dissolves after 24 hours) is just one forum that finds us growing more comfortable with turning the camera on ourselves.
In practice, Meerkat isn’t so different from existing live broadcasting services like YouNow, Livestream, or Twitch. But Meerkat’s reliance on Twitter as a host and distributor (broadcasts and comments all appear online as tweets) along with its mobile nature and sleek interface make the app feel more vital and engaged, and less about being #bored.
But it’s also Meerkat’s unofficial (and increasingly stormy) piggybacking courtship with Twitter that’s lending the app a bit of punk rock edge in its crucial first weeks. Meerkat enters a soon-to-be-bustling marketplace of similar live-video streaming apps like Stre.am, Teleparty, and Periscope, which was freshly acquired by Twitter. Seemingly seeking to give its own investment an upper hand, Twitter disabled Meerkat’s access to its social graph, meaning Meerkat users could no longer automatically import and link their Twitter followers — a major blow to an app that depends on a pre-engaged audience.
This roadblock hasn’t stopped the app’s numbers from skyrocketing: Nearly 20,000 signed on to Meerkat during the app’s debut week in late February, and SXSW shot that number well above 100,000. If anything, the perceived pettiness of Twitter’s passive paddling of Meerkat may have spurred the latter’s growth (and the adorable logo of the app’s namesake critter certainly couldn’t have hurt).
Meerkat’s current content seems pulled between a handful of guinea pig celebrities and dozens of social media analysts Meerkatting their feelings about Meerkat. It’s a combination of scant supply and outsized demand that has quickly inspired passionate defenders and detractors alike, and the haterati have already begun to circle and groan. (“When the asteroid hits or the nuclear experiment causes Godzilla to rise from the bottom of the Pacific and devour us all,” wrote Chris O’Brien for Venture Beat, “it will be a relief. Because there will be no more Meerkat.”)
But the potential of Meerkat — as a vehicle for on-scene news coverage, behind-the-scenes access, real-time engagement, and, well, porn — is undeniable. Whether that potential is realized over the coming months has a lot to do with how well the app can draw its own crowd of faithfuls (which worked out great for Snapchat and less so for Ello). Like the thousands of amateur broadcasters now reporting live from their breakfasts, Meerkat may well be ready for its close-up.