New Live Stream App May Be 2016 Game Changer
You didn’t have be in one family’s Dover, N.H., living room Friday evening to see and hear what Jeb Bush had to say about education or immigration or whatever those gathered wanted to know. You didn’t even have to wait for the tweets from the reporters who were there too.
Instead, you could see for yourself, in real time, thanks to a new mobile device app. Called Meerkat, it allows users to easily live-stream and share such events. Similar programs are in the works, including one recently purchased by Twitter.
Welcome to the ultra-modern political campaign, where everything candidates (and potential ones) do and say can be disseminated -- without a media filter -- even faster than it takes to write or read a tweet or a Facebook post.
Live streaming is hardly new, especially regarding political events. Appearances like the ones Bush (and Scott Walker, and Rick Perry, and Ted Cruz) made throughout New Hampshire over the weekend are often taped and streamed by C-SPAN or through subscription platforms like Ustream, and also tweeted about and reported on by journalists on the ground.
But live streaming technology is now more accessible than ever for the average user. Such applications can be a useful resource for campaigns and reporters who cover them. Politicians have embraced social media as a way to engage constituents, and easy to use streaming services can be considered as a new way to communicate and appear accessible. But this new layer of access presents potential pitfalls, too.
Bush’s appearance Friday night was open to reporters, many of whom streamed the event using Meerkat. But for intimate political gatherings that exclude the press, it’s easier than ever for a bartender or caterer or any attendee to discreetly stream a candidate’s remarks to the public. (Imagine if the person who recorded Mitt Romney’s now infamous “47 percent” remark had Meerkat or a similar type of app on his smartphone.)
“It's clear that the days of pen-and-pad or taped video events are over,” says Zeke Miller, a political reporter for Time magazine who used Meerkat while covering candidates in the Granite State this past weekend.
“We're going to have entire micro-news cycles play out on Twitter in real time that the candidate and the reporters in the room aren't aware of,” said Miller, a prolific tweeter with a large following. “Will that be determinative in any way? No. But it just contributes to the ever-quickening [pace] of the campaign, which traditionalists will bemoan and others will find fun and exciting.”
Meerkat debuted just two weeks ago, and reporters and politicians have caught on quickly. Yahoo News’ Jon Ward, an early adopter, interviewed Sen. John Thune in his Capitol Hill office last week, for example. Ward also streamed from several different weekend events in New Hampshire, giving thousands of followers live access to the budding campaigns and what it is like to cover them.
Meerkat was originally designed to connect to a user’s Twitter account, making it easy to distribute the content and allow that built-in audience to engage further. Late Friday night, Twitter dismantled Meerkat’s automatic syncing function, as the company is reportedly preparing to acquire a similar live-stream technology called Periscope, which has not yet been released to the public.
Still, whether through Meerkat, Periscope, or other apps yet to be developed, it’s clear the interest in and access to live-sharing technology is growing. Meerkat Community Manager Ryan Cooley said the company saw a 30 percent increase in users since Twitter’s announcement Friday night.
Meerkat was designed “to give everybody the ability to have something in their pocket that allows someone else to participate in an experience,” Cooley told RealClearPolitics. “No longer do you need to be in a place to have the experience. There are no physical limitations.”
The app’s creators have been working on the technology for two years. The first iteration, called Yevvo, was designed for smaller, more personal broadcasts. (Cooley cites as an example sharing video of your grandmother’s 89th birthday party with your cousins.) But the creators soon learned that users were interested in sharing their experiences with a larger audience via Twitter. After another iteration, called Air, Meerkat was born.
In launching the app at the end of February, Meerkat’s creators met with reporters and news outlets to solicit feedback about its functionality and how it could be used in the political space. While Meerkat was designed for any user to stream any kind of experience, Cooley sees the technology as a “game changer” for journalists -- and for voters craving unfiltered access to candidates.
“We're entering a world in which there is so much transparency about what people are doing. Everything is being shared,” says Cooley, who spoke to RCP from Austin, where the Meerkat team is promoting the app at the South by Southwest festival.
Vincent Harris, Rand Paul’s digital strategist, envisions apps like this one becoming an integral part of campaigns and political coverage. “Anytime a platform comes along that encourages engagement, it's beneficial to democracy and political participation. It's easy to use, and I can imagine it being immediately applied to 2016 races,” he told RCP in an email.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds joined the Meerkat crowd last week, and encouraged constituents to follow them through the app. “Iowans will be able to join us as we tour communities following natural disasters, as we visit a small business, listen-in to our weekly press conferences or even as we hit the trail for our annual 99-county tour,” Reynolds said in a press release.
The only downside Harris sees for politicians is “the recurring issue that every politician needs to make sure they're on their game when there's a phone around, as it could be streaming their comments live to the world.”
Over the past few years, candidates have been reminded that everyone has a camera and a recorder. Now, everyone has the potential to send a live feed.
The technology is also appealing to opposition research teams digging up dirt. “In our business, the faster the better,” says Jeff Bechdel, communications director for America Rising, a Republican research firm that put trackers in 36 states during the 2014 campaign.
Bechdel pointed to a live stream of Hillary Clinton being interviewed last month at a women’s tech conference in Silicon Valley, where she said she uses multiple mobile devices. As soon as Clinton said during a press conference last week that she conducted government business through her personal email account for the “convenience” of carrying a single device, America Rising distributed the Silicon Valley clip before Clinton had even finished her presser.
An app like Meerkat “could definitely work for us and help us get video and whatever else out there into the bloodstream as it happens, and help shape the narrative that way,” says Bechdel.
The video quality and steadiness isn’t the equal of C-SPAN coverage or that of professional videographers from major news outlets (some of which stream content online live). But it’s not meant to be. The value is rooted in the content itself and the live nature of it.
As with any new app, there are questions about whether services such as Meerkat are simply a fad. Reporters accustomed to live tweeting from events might come to view the live-streaming component as an added hassle. But the fact that Twitter sees the value of such technology is telling.
“Live video between you and someone else brings an intimate piece you don’t get through photo or video or text,” says Cooley. “There’s an intimacy and authenticity about that experience, since nothing can be hidden. There’s serious value on that,” he adds, but allows, “I know, it may sound scary.”