Hot new video app Meerkat emerges as a possible citizen journalism tool

By Michael Carney , written on March 12, 2015

From The News Desk

We’ve seen the power of platforms like Twitter and YouTube to empower citizen journalists and bring attention to the plights of the oppressed around the world. Twitter has the benefit of being real-time, something that proved crucial during uprisings like the Arab Spring and in recent protests in Ferguson, MO. YouTube, which has become the global front door to online video, adds a visual richness to these stories.

Today, we may have seen the first example of Meerkat, a real-time video streaming service built on top of Twitter and combining many of the best attributes of these two platforms, functioning to spread a similar kind of awareness.

A little over an hour ago, Los Angeles-based angel investor Paige Craig streamed a feed that was watched by dozens of people concurrently at its peak, capturing an ongoing arrest near his home in the Venice neighborhood. During the seven minute-long interaction, Craig and the driver of a Lyft that he exited moments before were each the targets of what seems like harassment and intimidation by the officers involved.

Craig, who was already streaming on Meerkat during his Lyft ride (Disclosure: He’s an angel investor in Lyft), exited the vehicle at the corner of the intersection immediately adjacent to the ongoing arrest, turning his smartphone camera to the incident. He was promptly approached by one of the officers who asked what he was doing, and accused him of creating an officer safety issue through his mere presence.

The officer, seemingly intent on giving Craig an illegal parking citation – but let’s be honest, more so on harassing him in any way possible – asked for his license and registration. Once the officer realized that Craig wasn’t the driver, he proceeded to ticket the Lyft driver who had remained on the scene, in her vehicle, watching the nearby arrest unfold.

To be sure, this incident bears no resemblance in significance to those unfolding in true conflict-zones like Ferguson and Egypt. But Craig’s example of how Meerkat can act as a tool for those looking to document situations as they unfold is foreshadowing. Meerkat, which makes it easy to quickly and effectively broadcast events in real-time, could easily become the tool of choice for activists and freedom fighters in other parts of the world in need of a similar audience.

The real magic of Meerkat, be it for trivial and serious use case, has been the platform's ability to aggregate sizable audiences of viewers in real-time. It's quite remarkable that such a new product has already assemble often hundreds or thousands of people to experience an event simultaneously from around the world.

There are, however, downsides to Meerkat as the product stands currently. First, the platform builds its social graph based on a user’s existing Twitter follower list, meaning that if a user has a small network, there is less likelihood that a stream reaches a mass audience. That said, Meerkats are public, meaning that fellow Twitter users can share and amplify the audience that sees any interesting or impactful content.

Secondly, Meerkat is real-time, but also ephemeral, meaning that the platform doesn’t store copies of streamed content for future public consumption. Individual users can choose to store this content on their local devices, and thus can re-share it via platforms like YouTube and Facebook at a later time. But in times of conflict, this arrangement is less than ideal and could result in the permanent loss of important footage.

Of course this ephemeral nature could actually prove to be a benefit to citizen journalists and their subjects, who in many cases don't want a permanent record of their involvement in certain protests, say in countries where freedom of speech and assembly are not a given. In these situations, Meerkat would still represent a great tool for spreading awareness, but it would fall short in terms of creating a lasting evidence trail when crimes are committed.

Meerkat may have to evolve its product and continue to grow its community of users if it is ultimately to be the next great citizen journalism platform. But, after just two weeks in existence, the platform is already showing major promise to be more than just a tool for narcissists and navel gazers. As Craig says in his stream today, it’s amazing the power of a smartphone and an audience to take back power from oppressors.

“I have no relationship with the company,” Craig tells me, “but I think it’s the future.”

Below are several short clips of the incident in question, shared with Pando by Craig for use in this story:

Update: 3/12/15, 6:20pm – Craig just posted the following public comment to his Facebook page:

Paige Craig Meerkat Cop update

[Disclosure: Michael Carney has accepted a position as an associate at Upfront Ventures that begins in April. To the best of Pando’s knowledge, the companies in this post and their competitors have no affiliation with Upfront. This post went through Pando’s usual editorial process.]