The Meerkat vs. Periscope debate is heating up. But underlying the current buzz around these particular apps is a bigger question: are we at the brink of a new social revolution around live digital video streaming, or is it just empty hype? After all, the core technology itself is not exactly ground-breaking. Live video streaming has been around for well over a decade. Well-known companies in the space, like Livestream and Ustream have not taken off, despite having introduced app versions of their services years ago.
Why Periscope/Meerkat are genuine game changers
The answer is that this time, things are different. Unlike their predecessors, emerging apps like Meerkat and Periscope stand a better chance at success than ever, thanks to several key factors. The first is that we increasingly live in a mobile-first world. Consider this: by next year, a staggering two billion people around the world will own a smartphone. And this means that the technology needed to create and consume live video has also never been more accessible. So the timing is finally right for a streaming app.
Second, over the past decade we’ve seen an unprecedented surge in usage of social media. Sites like Facebook, Instagram, Vine and Snapchat currently share billions of active users. More importantly, those users have grown used to broadcasting details of their lives. Sharing intimate, personal moments through photos and videos has become an accepted form of mass communication. In other words, the culture of social sharing has matured to the point that something like Periscope is viable.
Finally, apps like Meerkat and Periscope have the unique advantage of potentially mapping onto already existing social graphs. By linking to a network like Twitter, for example, Periscope users can immediately tap into existing audiences, instead of having to build them from scratch. This means they have higher viral sharing potential for their content, as well. (Currently Meerkat users have been limited from accessing Twitter’s social graph, but who knows, maybe another big network like Facebook will be next to join the race.) This kind of functionality was not available for older streaming technologies.
With these factors combined, it’s no surprise we’re hitting a real tipping point for the video streaming trend. If the momentum continues, it will shake things up in ways we’ve not imagined.
Implications: on business, politics and personal lives
From a business standpoint, the implications of the live streaming trend are enormous. Think of it as YouTube, without the hassle of uploading. If anyone can immediately be their own live broadcasting TV station, from where ever they are, content and marketing will never be the same. Should the trend truly take off, the tidal wave of real-time campaigns and personalities to come may upturn the media and communications landscape. But keep in mind, this kind of transformation will not happen overnight. For now, in order for apps like Meerkat or Periscope to be able to serve as real business tools, they’ll need to make significant improvements to their existing functionalities and UI. (Improvements might include live streams that are easier to locate and track, and commenting that can be captured, instead of disappearing in seconds.)
Meanwhile, for the more immediate future this type of live video streaming also has the potential to alter our day-to-day communications with each other, in all sorts of ways. Imagine an indie film director who say, while filming a difficult movie scene, decides to broadcast a take live to fans to get immediate feedback on how to make it better. For artists and creators, mainstream live video streaming will inspire an entirely new way to engage with their fans and help them become more collaborative with their work.
Or how about—on a personal level—being able to scope out an event by previewing it first in real-time. Wondering whether it’s worth joining your friends at that party? Ask them to Meerkat it. In fact, Meerkat founder Ben Rubin and two partners built an earlier version of their app, called Yevvo, as a way to be able to show each other what a given scene was like at a tech event. There’s no doubt that personal broadcasting will change not only the way we use social; it has the potential to fundamentally change the way we live, day to day.
Finally, there are the global and political implications. If every single person on earth with a phone is able to broadcast anything in real time, we’re going to see a democratization of sharing information in ways we’ve never seen before. Take for example the crucial role that Twitter played in the Egyptian revolution of 2011. In many cases, social media became a new type of lifeline for people on the ground to share accounts of what was happening with the world. Now, imagine a similar world event in which live updates from citizens are in real-time video. These types of updates will transport viewers to events and places in ways we have never seen before.
Meerkat founder Ben Rubin calls this movement “spontaneous togetherness.” It’s a fitting term. At core, these technologies enable individuals to connect with a larger group, no matter where in the world they are physically located. These apps afford a new vehicle to share experiences and information in raw, honest and uncensored ways—and that’s something to get excited about.
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