Meerkat, Periscope, and Broadcasting Your Life

Conference aide SoRelle Wyckoff films a news conference in the Capitol after a meeting of the House Republican Conference using the live streaming app Meerkat, March 24, 2015.
Conference aide SoRelle Wyckoff films a news conference in the Capitol after a meeting of the House Republican Conference using the livestreaming app Meerkat, March 24, 2015. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call

Meerkat and Periscope. For the uninitiated, they are two adorably named apps that allow you to watch and comment on livestreaming video on your smartphone. They’re also all the rage on the internet — in part because they are out-of-the-blue rivals for livestreaming supremacy, and in part because they are darlings of various celebrities and politicians. 

They are also, at least to me, a bit of an enigma. After fooling around with both of them and viewing any number of streaming videos on them, I still cannot figure out how to use them — or, more to the point, what use I might have for them. They don’t make a lot of sense as a portal for political news. They don’t make sense as a social network. And they don’t necessarily make sense as a breaking-news outlet either. I just do not see the use case. And I fear there might not be one.

You might not know that by reading all of the sweaty press about them. Meerkat launched just a few weeks ago and became a phenomenon instantly, by “conquering” South by Southwest, just like Twitter and Foursquare before it. Celebrities and politicians hopped on the bandwagon, and the app shot up the rankings. Then, last week, Twitter launched Meerkat’s better rival, Periscope, which it bought for a reported $100 million in January. It’s basically the same thing, albeit with a nicer, cleaner interface and the ability to replay livestreams after they are done. 

So why the sudden profusion of and excitement about livestreaming apps? The answer is in part technical and in part cultural. Smartphones have gotten faster and have become ubiquitous, making it possible for users to film and to view live video. On top of that, the popularity of apps like Facebook, Snapchat, Vine, Twitter, and so on has made it seem more normal for people to share every last detail of their lives.

The promise, Meerkat argues, is to facilitate what it calls “spontaneous togetherness.” It means being with your friends or interacting with your peers, wherever they are, whatever they are doing. “Live streaming is the future and Meerkat is here,” the company said. “We are all about re-inventing shared experiences  —  as honest and direct as it gets.”   

What does that actually look like? To find out, I spent a while watching what I could watch on the app. Last week, for instance, I viewed a Swedish chef preparing a dinner service and a guy commuting on Meerkat, overlaid with a livestream of viewer reactions, like “Getting hungry” and “Follow me.” I watched some British guy giving his dogs biscuits on Periscope, as little hearts for viewer likes and phrases like “How many dogs do you have?” floated across the screen. I also saw the comedian Rob Delaney — who is probably better at the internet than anyone else alive, save Beyoncé — doing not much more than breathing deeply. “I’m just looking at a wall in my home,” he said. “I’m not going to show the view out the window, because I don’t want people to know where I live. I hope to show people that I don’t deserve to have this technology. It’s new and it’s exciting. I’m not any of those things.” 

That’s … about it. It’s not terribly interesting. In fact, it’s normally stultifying, as most people’s lives are. The live feeds might be great if your friends were doing one-off amazing things that are easy to film. But few people are ever doing that. As such, my time spent on the two apps never got more transcendent. One of the most popular things to see on Periscope is the inside of someone else’s fridge. On YouNow, a competitor app, teens are tuning in to watch random people sleep.

As for breaking news and activism, that is where the apps might get more relevant. There is, as Adrian Chen wrote on this site, tremendous demand for news coverage without the intermediation of a reporter or a cable-news camera — for seeing the protests in Ferguson firsthand, say, or watching a massive fire in the East Village without blaring CNN commentary. Ditto, perhaps, for run-of-the-mill election coverage, where Meerkat and Periscope will offer unfettered access to any number of candidate meltdowns, grip-and-grins, and stump speeches. “If 2004 was about Meetup, 2008 was about Facebook, and 2012 was about Twitter, 2016 is going to be about Meerkat,” predicted Dan Pfeiffer, the recently departed Obama official. “The potential for a service that makes live-streaming 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.” 

Perhaps. But in terms of treating Meerkat and Periscope as run-of-the-mill social networks, it seems worth noting that it is hard enough to compose a beautiful tweetInstagram photograph, or Vine. Composing an interesting livestreaming video seems to be yet harder. And most of the people you know, I imagine, will not have the time or inclination to do it. In terms of news, the use case seems more compelling, but also much more limited than Meerkat and Periscope’s boosters in the press might have you believe. Even hugely important news events tend to be visually uninteresting or difficult to capture in a short video. Many only seem important in retrospect. That means that many putatively interesting livestreams on Meerkat and Periscope might go unnoticed at the time they are recorded and thus at the time they are meant to be viewed, social-media trees falling silent in a vast social-media forest. 

Moreover, the platforms dampen the ability of users to edit and share their videos — and thus the ability of those videos to go viral. Let’s say that you were at a campaign event and saw a politician lose his cool and scream his face off at a constituent. But let’s say it happened three hours into the event, meaning that your mom was the only one watching your Meerkat feed by the time the candidate went ballistic. And let’s say that you failed to capture and repost the relevant part afterward. Would it go crazy on the internet? The short answer is that it would not. The ability to trim down, to share asynchronously, to annotate, to comment on — these are pillars of the viral internet, and Periscope and Meerkat erode them.   

None of this is to say that there is no use for livestreaming apps at all — just that their appeal seems niche, rather than broad, contrary to the press describing them as the new new social network. They mostly solve a problem that nobody needed solved in the first place. In the case of protests, fires, and civil demonstrations, I plan to check in. But if it’s just some dude showing me his fridge? Well, I’ve got my own fridge to look at when I’m bored.