Defend Truth

Being Meerkat, looking out over the entire world

New app Meerkat has been tipped as a game-changer, both for the selfie-loving and news-obsessed. GREG NICOLSON gave it a try and found you can see whatever you're interested in, wherever, by whomever, plus some things you never thought you'd be interested in. The weird thing - you can interact with it in real time.

If you have Meerkat, on Sunday you could have seen me put on my contact lenses in the morning, dishevelled and dreary (three people watched). Later you could have experienced walking across Nelson Mandela Bridge with me (which was rather quiet but drew 10 viewers). There was the view from a table in Braamfontein as I sipped coffee (no viewers). And, like seven people, you could have watched me greet patrons and order a beer, even comment on how long it took to order. Each event was streamed live, with viewers seeing what I saw as I experienced it.

Since launching almost a month ago and earning an exorbitant amount of attention at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, Meerkat has been hailed as the app to watch this year; one that could not only change methods of communication but also of reporting and news. It’s too early to tell whether it will have the impact of social media tools which have entered the everyday lexicon, but already estimates say over 300,000 users have downloaded the free app that recently earned another $12 million in investment and has already drawn the ire of Twitter, a former key facilitator.

How does it work? Download the Meerkat application on your iPhone (it’s only available on Apple’s iOS until developers finish the Android version) and immediately it will ask to link to your Twitter account. Then it’s pretty simple. Click “Stream” and instantly your phone’s camera and microphone will stream live to followers or anyone else who wants to watch the random things you’re doing. You can see who is watching your video and engage with them, while still streaming, through comments. (As I waited for my beer, a viewer agreed the service was poor.)

Linked to your Twitter account, Meerkat can stream live onto that feed. After you finish shooting, for a minute, 24 hours, whatever, you can either save the video to your phone and do what you want with it or decide not to, and it won’t be saved.

It’s sort of like YouTube, but it exploits the desire for something live and unedited, a feeling of possibility and lack of editorial control. Whether it’s watching me in a bar, a snowboarder riding down a mountain, a celebrity on a walking tour of a foreign city, or (as I did for far too long) a streetscape of a city you once knew, there’s a strange feeling of unknown possibilities and that you’re close to being there, experiencing and engaging with something far away in the present time, even if it’s mundane.

Following an obsession with projecting our lives online and absorbing the lives of others, Meerkat goes a step further than Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. It’s like Skype with a whole lot more people on the line who don’t have a webcam but can only type back. Or watching professional gamers live online, but not just gaming. Perhaps it’s closest to those porn webcam sites, where viewers get a rush from interacting with someone they can see in real time, but Meerkat is free and instead of porn you can see whatever you’re interested in, wherever, by whomever.

While everyone can live stream, as with all other social media devices, some live streams will be more popular than others. And for the news media, the real value has been tipped as opening up citizen journalism. My attempts at Meerkat have so far been about the everyday, but I would have liked to show what was happening at a violent protest last week in Jeppestown, with people being able to see it live – the boring and the exciting. Other users might be able to show newsworthy things – anything, adding to the already vast variety of ways we receive and decipher information, 24 hours of footage from around the world, at the most crucial protests and demonstrations to broadcast to anyone online. (Perhaps the next revolution that happens in any of the world’s hot spots will be known as the Meerkat revolution, rather than a Facebook or Twitter one.)

Punting Meerkat as a complete game-changer might be premature. After a day of using it, I haven’t quite grasped the skill of what’s worth watching and what’s not. It also has a bizarre “score” tally that measures how long you spend on the app and how many viewers you get, making it feel like a crappy game instead of a communication tool. Then, of course, it’s limited to iPhone users for now, and to live stream you obviously need a decent wi-fi connection or data packages on a drip, not available to many (as a test, three minutes of Meerkat streaming appeared to use about 15MBs).

Whether Meerkat continues to gain momentum after its strong showing so far remains to be seen, but live streaming apps seem to be here to stay. Twitter recently blocked Meerkat as a third party service, making it more difficult for Meerkat users to connect with friends and followers, as Twitter is looking at live streaming services through Periscope, a start-up that it acquired this year. The apps add a whole new element to the immediacy of communication, and the annihilation of borders around the world. DM

Photo: A meerkat sits in its enclosure and observes the scenery at the zoo Tierpark Sababurg near Hofgeismar, Germany, 13 June 2013. EPA/UWE ZUCCHI


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