Mark Hall (my long-time friend and the founder of ShowYou) tweeted one of my columns from Business 2.0.
Whether in Parisian cafes, Bombay chai stalls, or Manhattan singles’ bars, humans have an overwhelming need to get together, talk, communicate, and interact. Our genes are coded that way. It’s no surprise that as we rush toward an always-on, ever more connected society, we want to mimic these offline interactions on the Net…..What we need is something more intimate, meant for a tight group of friends and family members. It’s not about performance; it’s about connection…..now’s the prime time for any startup that can give me – and every other person on the planet – the tools we need to broadcast our lives
I wrote that column in May of 2007, but the arguments are as relevant today as they were eight years ago. And they speak to why everyone is going bonkers over Meerkat — which for now seems to be mostly a technology phenomenon, albeit one that can and hopefully will become something much more.
Vanity thy name is social
Twitter has been quick to shut down Meerkat’s access to its social graph, much as it shut down Instagram’s access to Twitter. Instagram was a threat and is now bigger than Twitter in terms of total number of users Meerkat is also threat, and it too has the potential to become bigger. Why? Because there is a common thread between Twitter, Instagram and Meerkat — they each have an insane ability to amplify vanity, which in itself is a drug.
A very visible (and vain) group of people — celebrities, sports stars, movie stars, musicians, and journalists — all of whom are preoccupied with audience, recognize that these specific social tools are ane insanely ideal way to grow and connect with their audiences. It’s why Twitter has an outsized influence, even though Facebook dwarfs it in size and user base. At its core, Instagram isn’t about sharing an endless stream of photos, it’s about projecting a certain lifestyle and story to your audience.
Meerkat goes one step further — it gives every user a chance to build and broadcast their own show. Mark Suster of Upfront Ventures recently wrote that “The smartest move in 2015 is to find the right opportunity to ask the user for their mobile phone number. If they authorize you to use this number and give you access to your contact list and then you have the ability to auto-match other users who sign up.”
I mostly agree with Suster. At the moment, Meerkat is using celebrities (as defined above) as a way to establish its street cred. However, the real growth for them will come when I (and others) can broadcast, connect and interact with our friends and family around the globe, using the Meerkat app. And it is not just those social interactions — yesterday I saw a Meerkast of photographer Vincent Laforet snapping photos of Manhattan from a helicopter. It wasn’t quite like the Felix Baumgardner’s space jump, but it was still quite an event and made me wonder if this was the next evolution of live broadcasting.
In a Twitter DM exchange, @StartupLJackson (a parody account) pointed out that, “It’s too soon to call Meerkat. Clearly video matters, but ephemeral and 1:N p2p are new concepts. Unproven. Clearly celebrity broadcasting works. Periscope is the conservative bet & will target that.” Periscope is the company Twitter acquired in January 2015 to offer live and archived mobile video streams.
Live video streaming has been a long time coming. The path to Meerkat is littered with many startups that tried but ultimately failed in this space, although the current Meerkat Madness offers a bit of posthumous vindication. Perhaps the most prescient of them all was Justin Kan, who founded Justin.tv, a company that essentially allowed him to live stream his life on the web.
I remember hanging out with Justin (now a partner at YCombinator) and telling myself that one day this camera-setup (that included a battery pack, a computer and a modem for a live Internet connection) he was wearing will be simple, cheap and easy to use. Daniel Graf thought it was easier to do this on Nokia smartphones, and started Kyte.tv, which also didn’t go anywhere. Graf ended up working with Google, and, later, for a very brief period, had the most dangerous job in tech: VP of product at Twitter. There were other livestream pioneers, too, including Qik, which who enjoyed moderate success.
All About Mobile Broadband
Why did many of these companies struggle? Multiple reasons: there weren’t enough people with smartphones; mobile Internet was puny; most of the energy was focused on the PC-centric web; and, perhaps most significantly, live streaming was an alien concept. Today, the market is ready for live video streaming. We’re not yet peak narcissism.
At the end of 2014, there were about 497 million LTE subscribers and about 1.83 billion who had access to 3G networks. Many people in developed and rapidly developing countries have access to WiFi in their homes, offices and other commercial establishments.
Mobile broadband connections will account for almost 70 percent of the global base by 2020, up from just under 40 percent at the end of 2014. (Those estimates come from GSMA, the mobile industry trade organization.) By 2020, there will be 2.9 billion smartphone connections, and mobile data traffic is expected to rise ten-fold by 2019.
I have always believed that networks — their quality and speed — have an outsized influence on how various technologies are adopted. However, it’s not simply the network. There are more smartphones in use than there ever before, and the huge majority are based on only two operating systems (Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android and its variants.) Thus it is relatively easy to get social distribution — Meerkat pushed the envelope and quickly became a phenomenon. And, to its credit, the app is dead simple to use. The back-end infrastructure required to carry the video loads is easier to build, thanks to the emergence of Amazon Web Service. All that said, it is not just the technology which explains the emergence and instantaneous rise of Meerkat. Culturally, we’re finally ready for MeTV.
MeTV meets Real World
In 2011 I wrote this piece: Now starring you, in a movie about you. Here’s the relevant part:
In our 21st-century society, we all want to stand out and get attention. Narcissistic? Perhaps, but we’re living in this century and defining the ethos for the new Internet-connected age as we go along.I’m not a philosopher, so I’ll live these heavier matters to people with a higher intelligence quotient. What I can tell you is that the technology companies that benefit from these big trends are those who provide platforms for sharing our lives.
SixApart’s MoveableType, Flickr and Blogger were early proponents of sharing, but they never really got to realize their full potential because they grew up in an era limited by relatively low broadband penetration and lack of mobility-driven computing.
Subsequent platforms — YouTube, WordPress and Tumblr — have had more success, thanks to faster, cheaper broadband connections. Twitter and Facebook are the big winners of this sharing.
The emergence and growing popularity of San Francisco-based Instagram is yet another sign that in the end, this cultural shift benefits the platform providers.
Next time you are thinking about building a product, evaluating a company or just wondering why early adopters are so crazy about Instagr.am or Quora, keep in mind we’re playing a role in a movie: edited, directed and starring us.
In hindsight, it seems we have ended up in a reality TV future. Over the past two decades America and then rest of the world has been fed a steady diet of reality TV. Remember, MTV’s Real World launched back in 1992.
A recent article for the Pacific Standard had this comment from Tel Aviv University professor of media studies, Jerome Bourdon (professor of television history & media studies at Tel Aviv University) which summed up the social cultural shift we are going through:
“Very individualistic, need for exposure, quest for celebrity as the ultimate form of social success…. The shows impose ideas on participants, but also on [the] audience—that your best resource is yourself, your own image, and your capacity to control it.”
I am not sure if Meerkat is the actual winner of the live streaming sweepstakes, or if something else will emerge. What I do know is that almost eight years after Justin Kan started his journey (and I wrote that column), the future has finally arrived.
Like it usually does, when it is ready.
Photo of Meerkat courtesy of Wikipedia under Creative Commons