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Silicon Valley is fuelled by fomo: the fear of missing out. Every tech entrepreneur and investor is paranoid that the next big thing might pass them by. Sometimes, an app comes along that gets this early-adopter crowd excited by trading on artificial scarcity and goes viral among the digerati — sometimes burning out before the rest of the world is even aware of it.
This week, the power of fomo thrust a video app called Meerkat upon the twittering classes. Meerkat allows you to broadcast a live video stream from your phone, sending a link to all your Twitter followers, who can then use the 140-character messaging site to chat with you as you film. You can also schedule a broadcast ahead of time, to attract an audience in advance.
Ben Rubin, Meerkat’s co-founder, has described it as a “live video button for Twitter”. Key to Meerkat’s appeal is its policy of “no reruns”: every video can only be watched live.
Meerkat posts a tweet to your account when you start streaming, but the link remains even after you stop. “‘Stream over’ is the new Fomo,” tweeted Josh Elman of venture investor Greylock, referring to the message that greets viewers who were just too late.
The mobile livestreaming idea is not entirely new. In 2007, Justin.tv allowed viewers to watch the eponymous Justin Kan “lifecast” his day; the site morphed into Twitch, which lets videogamers stream play sessions and was sold to Amazon for $1bn last year.
Other live online video services include Bambuser, which caught on in Egypt in 2011 as a way for protesters to broadcast instantly their battles with the authorities, and Ustream, which is used by businesses including Facebook and Samsung to broadcast press conferences and other events. Meerkat is not even Mr Rubin’s first attempt at mobile broadcasting, having launched an app called Yevvo, later renamed Air, back in 2013 and raising millions in venture capital from investors including Israel’s Aleph.
But on the internet, timing is everything. Meerkat has popped up on iPhones at a moment when 4G mobile networks make live video streaming more viable (although not always reliable) and when Snapchat has shown that there is value in the ephemeral. (Not, perhaps, coincidentally, Meerkat’s icon is yellow and white, like Snapchat’s.)
This is also the age of the selfie stick, and what better than live, click-it-or-miss-it video to feed our desperate egos. Meerkat’s app is also simpler to use than most of its predecessors, giving it a pick-up-and-play appeal.
In these circumstances, Meerkat has captured Silicon Valley’s attention. Early users include Ashton Kutcher, the actor turned investor, and early Twitter backer Chris Sacca as well as executives at the company including Jessica Verrilli, and Index Ventures’ Saul Klein.
And how is this tool being used? To shine a light on protests such as those in Ferguson or capture impromptu celebrity rows, as its founders hope? Well, no, not quite yet.
Some 15 people watched Caroline McCarthy, who works for an adtech company in New York, feed her cat, Caterpillar. Five people watched Andy Rosenberg, a start-up marketer, as he got into a taxi at San Francisco airport. “Oh wow, I’ve got a real audience,” he said, waving to the camera. And 18 people (18!) watched my short stream of some popular UK TV ads featuring meerkats.
Some streams are more entertaining or useful, if niche. An intimate group of eight watched Eytan Levit and David Katz in Tel Aviv playing the piano and singing an improvised song about tech company founders. (Sample lyrics: “Who we can fire if we are all co-founders?”) More than 250 people watched Product Hunt — the site where Meerkat first attracted attention — demo its new iPhone app on Tuesday.
For most normal folks, it will be hard to attract a big audience to their Meerkat broadcasts. But just as Twitter is most valuable at times of breaking or developing news and live events, something like Meerkat could come into its own in times of crisis or widespread excitement.
In an online world of infinite distractions, Meerkat provides appointment-to-view narcissism. But as Twitter itself has shown, if a site collects a big enough audience with the trivial, profound things can sometimes happen.