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Meerkat and the Live Streaming Phenomenon at SXSW: A Tech Timestamp

Xconomy Texas — 

[Updated, 2:59 p.m.] What better place than South by Southwest to encounter technology that distracts you from the world around you? At Capital Factory’s A-List pitch event on March 13, a young woman in the middle of the audience seemed engrossed—not in what the speaker was saying, but in what her phone was recording and the tweets on her laptop.

She was not distracting anyone. She was not making noise. She was doing her job, which at that moment meant intently watching her laptop to ensure the video her phone captured was appropriately engaging the audience—the Internet audience, that is.

She was Meerkatting.

Is that even the right term? Meerkat, the San Francisco-based social media tool that lets people live-stream whatever they’re doing, is so new that a term for the action has barely been coined.

Whatever you may call it, there’s something startling to it, like teenagers holding up their lit cell phones in tribute at a rock concert instead of lighters. It’s a technology timestamp, the mark of an era.

Seeing someone interview the CEO of a company while holding a smartphone between them, asking questions to the image on the screen instead of the person behind it—this seems distant, as if neither person really exists except through the device itself.

That disconnect is by no means new. The idea has been explored in tech circles and out for decades and made prominent in recent years by the prevalence of social media. Yet Meerkat seems a particularly poignant example, in part because what the app does is so familiar. It’s as old as forcing your friends to watch home movies.

At SXSW, so much of the talk has been about Meerkat, as noted in an Associated Press wire headline that ran in papers Tuesday from Dallas to Yakima, WA. Since its debut a few weeks ago, the service reportedly has gained 150,000 users.

On Monday afternoon, there were 77 people at one point watching a photographer live stream his helicopter take-off from a rooftop in New York. More than 800 others simultaneously watched the CEO of Mashable wander around the Austin, TX, festival.

Not all attention has been positive since its launch. Twitter said on Friday it had bought its own live streaming service in January and then reportedly cut off Meerkat’s access to some Twitter user-related data the same day. As the company gains even greater prominence in media—myself included now—more people have felt drawn to question the value and innovation behind the service.

“I reckon, it might create peer pressure to live stream all the time,” David Cox, the chief innovation officer in the U.K. at M&C Saatchi, the international advertising agency, said in downtown Austin. “There might be a bit of a blandifying effect. Everything can’t be controversial.” Still, Cox believes that Meerkat or something like it is “going to be huge.”

Businesses seeking to promote themselves tend to agree. From Mashable to American Idol, national organizations have jumped on the platform and given behind-the-scenes looks at their operations. Smaller businesses have used it, too, noting that it resonates with users because the recordings aren’t pre-rehearsed.

Capital Factory was live-streaming at the event I watched Friday. The stream allowed employees of Aceable, a company that gave one of the five A-List pitches, who were working away at the office to see the event, as well as users of the app. (It gets costly to pay $1,300 per person for SXSW Interactive, especially if you’re a startup.)

The Austin-based company, which makes an interactive drivers ed program with memes and animations, plans to use Meerkat more, to do things like show how its products are made, said founder and CEO Blake Garrett. Aceable will also use the product to break news about itself and plans to schedule Meerkat feeds to launch new services, including a Web app set to launch next week, Garrett said. [The size of the company’s seed financing was removed because the amount has not been finalized.]

“It’s a very simple, instantaneous, authentic way to communicate and connect with people,” Garrett said in an interview. “We want to continue exploring it to better interact with our customer base.”

But when will it—the constant sharing and uploading—ever stop? Should it?

There are obvious benefits, like real-time citizen journalism in Ferguson or encouraging aid when a natural disaster strikes, said Aaron Motsinger, an account director at The Dialog Lab who is based in Austin. Live streaming can feel invasive or excessive in certain situations, and at times seems like it can replace the need for real experience with another excuse to rely on a connected device to interact, he said.

“Some things in life are just meant to be experienced in a sensory way, not observed second-hand through a video proxy,” Motsinger said. “These apps are a logical next step in digital innovation, but the idea that we might someday discount or ruin live experiences makes me shudder.”

Maybe it’s a matter of taking the technology in doses. Or maybe it’s absolutely normal, and anyone who reacts strongly against it is a technophobe. Did you freak out the first time you video chatted with someone, rather than called them on the phone?

Video calls are how Garrett, the CEO of Aceable, stays in touch with his mother. He doesn’t feel apprehensions about two people being separated by a device. Like many, he sees it as a connection.

“It feels deeper than just the phone,” Garrett said about video chatting. “It’s not even replacing that human connection, it’s enhancing it when it otherwise wouldn’t be possible.”