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Broadcast Every Little Drama

Meerkat and Periscope show how simple, fun, and weird live-streaming can be.

Live-streaming is a powerful way to communicate and share live information.

Like the frequent posture of its cute, furry namesake, a live-streaming video app called Meerkat recently got people to stand up and take notice.

Released about a month ago as an iPhone app, Meerkat lets you broadcast live videos that your Twitter followers can view through the app or on the Web. Broadcasts range from mundane clips of people’s pets to live updates on breaking news, like last week’s explosion in New York City.

Meerkat isn’t the first live-streaming service, and it could be superseded by Twitter’s own app, called Periscope. Earlier this month, Twitter announced that it had acquired the company behind Periscope, and it released the app last week after seeing Meerkat grow rapidly in popularity. Regardless of which app gains the most users over time, live-streaming seems destined to have a big future.

What makes Meerkat and Periscope alluring is the ability to share live video with your followers from just about anywhere. Your followers can comment in real time. Both apps are entwined with Twitter—any stream you start on Meerkat is automatically shared with your contacts, and the same is true on Periscope if you enable this feature. With both live-streaming apps, you can save the broadcasts you create and watch them yourself later. While Periscope gives you the option of letting viewers replay streams for 24 hours after they’ve been broadcast, Meerkat is all about living in the now—if you miss someone’s show live, too bad for you.

Meerkat’s cofounder and CEO, Ben Rubin, says more than 400,000 people were using it as of last week—280,000 of them via the free iPhone app and the rest watching live Meerkat streams on the Web. The app was a hit with SXSW festival attendees in March, and has even inspired complementary services such as Meerkat Roulette, which lets you watch random Meerkat streams from around the world.

I’ve been trying Meerkat over the past few weeks. Admittedly, much of what I’ve seen and streamed during these early days is pretty boring. But little flashes of brilliance—musician Questlove live-streaming a rehearsal at Carnegie Hall from behind his drum kit, for instance—show the potential of the medium.

The top of the Meerkat app invites you to write a quick description of what you want to stream and either schedule it for later or record right away. Lower down is a feed showing in-progress and upcoming live streams from people you’re following.

After choosing some people to follow, I saw some neat, weird things. Along with about 1,900 other people, I spotted Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon playing Mario Kart backstage before taping his show. Another time, I spent about 10 minutes watching Kevin Jonas, the eldest brother in the now-defunct Jonas Brothers pop group, do a Q&A about his unfortunately named restaurant-finding app, Yood. One person I follow on Twitter live-streamed her flight in a helicopter whirring above gorgeous, snow-covered, ski-tracked ground, and another broadcast a show featuring young rappers at SXSW. I found a guy just getting up in Honolulu who was live-streaming a spectacular sunrise.

I don’t have the budget for a helicopter ride, so I had a hard time figuring out what I should broadcast on Meerkat. Like many others getting acquainted with the app, I started out just live-streaming my walk around the San Francisco neighborhood where my office is located—admittedly, pretty boring. I tried to make things more interesting by visiting the sea lions at Pier 39, where I spent about 10 minutes on a sunny, windy afternoon broadcasting the cute, noisy pinnipeds lounging, swimming, and jostling for space on the docks.

Only a handful of people watched, all strangers except for a college buddy, Jake, but they stuck around the whole time and made some silly comments that I had fun reading and reacting to (both aloud and by typing in the app). After that I live-streamed a hapless juggler and a store filled with barrels of saltwater taffy.

Though I had charged my iPhone partway during the afternoon, it was close to dead after the streaming sessions. Though live-streaming video is getting easier and faster, the capacity of smartphone batteries will be a limiting factor. There can be connection problems, too. Live streams nearly always cut out a couple of times, and images frequently looked pixelated.

There are also a handful of glitches for Meerkat to attend to; text got cut off if a comment went longer than the width of the screen. And if a lot of people are watching and commenting on a live stream, all those identification bubbles and comments can fill up a significant portion of the screen, making it harder to watch. Periscope certainly looks more polished.

Apps like Meerkat and Periscope offer a whole new means of social interaction, one that can seem be trivial and silly but can also feel a lot more personal and engaging. It’s worth giving live-streaming a try. You might be surprised by what you see. And if not, you can always tell whoever’s broadcasting.

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