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Meerkat, YouNow, Periscope and the future of live-streaming

by Jim Louderback | March 29, 2015March 29, 2015 6:00 am PDT

I think I’ve found something even more boring than a long plane flight. Watching a live stream of said plane flight.

I’m sitting in seat 18D flying from New York to San Francisco, and streaming my experience on the new iOS-only mobile app Meerkat. If you haven’t heard of it, you must be living under a rock – and you certainly weren’t at SXSW this year. Through a carefully orchestrated plan involving new media personalities and targeted promotion, Meerkat emerged as the belle of the ball in Austin this year.

Meerkat

It garnered an incredible amount of buzz, and even now – a week later – sits at the top of Apple’s App Store charts. But apparently I’m not the only one bored by my in-flight experience, as no one else seems to be watching my live stream either.

Of course that could be due to the “Low Connectivity” notice that flashes every few seconds while I’m broadcasting – and the subsequent application crash. Perhaps the GoGo inflight wifi already blocks the app, like it does with Netflix and Hulu?

YouNow

So in a desperate attempt to find a viewer, any viewer, I fired up YouNow – a similar service that’s been running for nearly a year on both android and iOS devices. YouNow is going for a decidedly younger crowd, as it engages its audience with splash screens that include: “Homework done: No. YouNow: Yes!”. I share my boredom by streaming to the #bored channel, yet I could only entice a single person to watch. I didn’t get any low bandwidth warnings, but I did feel awfully lonely. And bored too.

Meerkat’s splash has reinvigorated the casual live streaming market – one that Twitch seemingly cornered over the last two years while YouTube and others repeatedly – and sometimes spectacularly – failed. Why now? In part because upstream mobile bandwidth is better than ever (except at 30,000 feet), which lets anyone broadcast themselves to friends, family and strangers in pretty darn good quality.

And apps like Meerkat and YouNow make it drop-dead simple to start streaming. Meerkat, particularly has done a good job not only making it easy to stream, but by incorporating twitter’s social graph, made it easy for twitter celebrities including Gary Vaynerchuk, Guy Kawasaki and Matt Mazzeo to engage with their fanbase.

Alas, twitter was not amused, and pulled Meerkat’s API access almost immediately. But the damage was done, as those early users sucked in their followers – who were then instantly notified whenever their favorite tweeters were going live. During a few viewing sessions prior to my flight I managed to watch Gary Vaynerchuk drive from his home to a meeting in Manhattan, and Matt Mazzeo lunching with a comely pal.

Meerkat lacks the channel structure of YouNow, but I would have slotted both of those into the #bored area as well. Love them both, but their streams were little better than watching paint dry. I missed my friend Robyn Peterson following Mashable’s Pete Cashmore around SXSW, Meerkatting the whole way, but I have it on good authority that it was equally insipid.

YouNow, because it has been up longer, has a bigger and more engaged viewer base. Some broadcasters have seen more than ten thousand simultaneous viewers. Yet it doesn’t lack for insipidity either. Since I couldn’t attract more than a single viewer myself, I started watching Triston_Tyler, who was having a good old time talking with his 200 or so simultaneous viewers. Bedecked in a backwards facing red baseball hat, tank top and the earnest look of a boy not yet legally able to fight for his country, Triston’s fans were text chatting away with the host – and each other, as he shared his thoughts with those fans. Many of them appeared to be teenage girls with a crush on young Triston, one asked him to come to Portugal and marry her, while another implored him to throw her a kiss.

But YouNow lets fans do more than just text chat with hosts, and hope for a response. Viewers can send their favorites virtual gifts, including flowers, fist-bumps, bacon, thumbs ups, and graphical “Bae” and “Bruh” stamps. You can even send your favorite hosts a steaming, smiling pile of poo.

The beauty of this is that few of those are free. You actually have to pay for the right to send scat. As I was watching Abby_someone tipped Triston 50 gold bars, and I was so moved that I graced him with a virtual sheep. I’m not sure what I communicated to Triston, but it cost me something to say it. And poor lovelorn Abby was out about .50 for her devotional efforts.

YouNow doesn’t share revenue with many of its stars yet, but some of its bigger creators make more money streaming than in their day jobs. More than a million dollars flows through YouNow each month – up from a half million or so back in December.

You would think CEO Adi Sideman would be upset by breakout success of a competitive product, but it’s quite the opposite, “It’s like someone fast forwarded 3 years into the future in 3 weeks”, Sideman told me, as all that attention has driven dramatic gains for YouNow as well. And Meerkat, by contrast, does not yet have a revenue model to reward its creators – although it’s a good bet that some of the top influencers were incentivized by options in the startup.

These live streaming apps are going to become a big headache for many parts of society. For example, on my way east from San Francisco I changed planes in terminal C of Boston’s Logan Airport. I grabbed a quick bite at the new Legal Seafoods, which conveniently has bar-style seating overlooking the security screening area. So while slurping some fried clams, I surreptitiously live streamed two security lines on Meerkat. I ended up with about 20 viewers, who asked me to share my french fries with them – which I did – and also to zero in on one of the more attractive flyers gathering her things at the end of the line.

I’m sure I broke all kinds of laws livestreaming the TSA agents and the security screening area. It didn’t take me long to feel a bit guilty – and a bit dirty – so I turned the stream off. But anyone could do just that same thing.

It was easy to spot a streaming glasshole, and just as easy to ban them from public places, or force them to take the darn things off. But both YouNow and Meerkat let you stream with the forward facing camera. And that means, in reality, no one can tell when you’re streaming them to the world. It looks – to everyone else – like you’re just checking Facebook or playing Candy Crush.

Periscope

We’re only just getting started.  Twitter recently purchased a similar app, Periscope, which it intends to deeply embed into the service.  “That will be a tsunami to Meerkat’s wave”, promises Sideman.  He’s right – this is the beginning of a brand new, and much more personal media – one that makes YouTube look like television.

Periscope was finally released Thursday, just as I was finishing up this post.  I had a chance to play with it for a little while, and I like it.  It’s a little more cluttered than Meerkat, but feels more fully baked.  I had a bunch of folks start watching my insipid little broadcast of the view from my porch – thanks guys – but I plan on spending more time with it.

Unfortunately we’re going to have to come with all sorts of new social rules to incorporate this technology into our world as well. Until then we’ll see more situations like the recent flap at Y Combinator, where Dave McClure was shut down and called out for Meerkatting the private event.

We’re also seeing a bit of a Meerkat backlash, as many viewers realize there really isn’t much compelling content on the service yet. And even though Greylock just dropped about $12M into the company, Meerkat’s future is not yet assured.

However, I’m pretty sure I know who’s at the top of Meerkat’s “Sell To” list:  Snapchat. The two logos are virtually identical – they use nearly the same yellow tint, and their names even rhyme. The two companies share a design ethos as well – simple, uncluttered and somewhat mystifying. And your Meerkat live streams also vanish into the ether when you’re done – as do Snapchats after 24 hours.

So will the ghost eat the ‘kat?  I’m betting yes on this one. And if they do, at least they won’t have to do a heck of a lot of redesigning.

Meerkat and Snapchat


Jim Louderback

Jim Louderback joined Revision3 as the CEO in July 2007, and guided the company to a 20-fold increase in viewers, a 12x increase in revenue, 39 new...

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