Every year, crowds flock to Austin, Texas for South by Southwest (SXSW). From its roots more than two decades ago as a music festival, the Interactive section of SXSW has become one of tech’s most widely attended and covered events.
Part of that has to do with the fact that SXSW has served as the launchpad for a number of successful startups. Perhaps the most notable and biggest contributor to SXSW’s cachet: Twitter.
The now billion-dollar social media giant didn’t officially launch at SXSW, but its appearance at the event in 2007 is widely considered to have helped put it on the map.
With the expectation that the next big thing could be waiting to be discovered, media observers, brands and tech enthusiasts closely watch SXSW Interactive every year for cool new services that have the potential to break out in a big way.
This year’s star is Meerkat, an app that allows users to live stream video from their mobile phones.
Originally, Meerkat required users to sign up using their Twitter accounts so that it could tap into the Twitter social graph, but Twitter, having acquired a company with a similar app, shut Meerkat out. The Meerkat team responded quickly, eliminating its app’s Twitter dependency.
According to CNN, over 40,000 new users joined the service earlier this week, and more than 200,000 people logged on to watch one of the 15,000 streams, or “Meerkats” as they are called, that were broadcast by users on Tuesday alone.
Celebrities like Jimmy Fallon and Julia Louis-Dreyfus engaged in Meerkats while at SXSW, as did countless less famous event-goers.
In fact, Meerkat became such a prominent part of SXSW this year that TechCrunch’s Josh Constine tweeted, “No one can learn about anything new because every conversation ends up being about Meerkat.”
So is Meerkat the next big thing? Live streaming certainly isn’t new. One of the earliest live streaming platforms, Justin.tv, launched in 2007.
It was shuttered in 2014 so that its founders could devote their resources to Twitch, a live streaming service for video games, that Amazon subsequently acquired for nearly a billion dollars.
A similar live streaming service, Ustream, also launched in 2007 and is used to stream more than 2m live events every month. Its primarily sells its service to businesses, however, and is not directly targeting the consumer market like Meerkat.
Timing is everything
What makes Meerkat different? According to Ustream CEO Brad Hunstable, Meerkat’s rise may be less about Meerkat itself and more about the state of the market. “There are a lot of very natural forces that are pushing this industry toward an explosion,” he told Slate’s Will Oremus.
Those forces include mobile broadband networks and widespread use of smartphones with cameras capable of recording high-definition video.
As Hunstable sees it, there will be plenty of room for multiple players in this burgeoning space, and it would be unwise to assume that services like Meerkat are too similar to existing offerings to be successful. Meerkat, he says, is “a different thing, like Vine versus YouTube.”
Vine, which was founded and acquired by Twitter in 2012, is a video sharing app that allows users to shoot short, looping videos. It might have seemed like a silly service to some when it launched, but it has carved out a niche with a younger demographic.
Vine’s most popular user has more than 11m followers and some Vine stars are reportedly paid tens of thousands of dollars by brands for sponsored Vines.
The ability for a service like Vine to thrive in a YouTube world offers a lesson to marketers and brands: don’t rule out the new kids on the block. A service like Meerkat might not seem revolutionary, but that doesn’t mean it won’t become an important, valuable platform.
And even if it fades away when the SXSW crowds go home, which is a real possibility, Meerkat could still very well be the harbinger of the next meaningful trend in the social media space.