Ben Rubin, the cofounder of the streaming social video app Meerkat, had just arrived at SXSW in Austin, Texas, started handing out bright yellow T-shirts, and was enjoying his app’s massive buzz when he got the call. It was from Twitter: They wanted to let him know that Meerkat’s access to the Twitter graph was being limited within the next two hours.
"We are not naïve, we knew it was coming," Rubin tells Fast Company. "We thought that we would at least get a week notice—a fair game."
Meerkat borrows Twitter’s social graph so that you don’t need to recruit a whole new group of friends to watch your video live stream using the app. Instead, when you start a session, the app sends a notification to anyone with the app who follows you—a practice that critics have said is a bit spammy. Nevertheless, the app has struck a chord. Since launching two weeks ago, it has attracted celebrity users like Jared Leto along with coverage from CNN, The Guardian, and Time. Meerkat has also won the informal designation as SXSW's "it" app of the year.
Twitter is also interested in live streaming, which is a natural evolution from the short-form video loops of Vine, which Twitter acquired in 2012. In January the company announced that it would acquire the live-streaming app Periscope. But that acquisition was only made official on March 13, and Meerkat’s access to the Twitter social graph followed soon after. A Twitter spokesperson cited the move as "consistent with our internal policy."
Fast Company has reached out to Twitter for further comment.
While Meerkat users can still post videos on Twitter and log in using their Twitter credentials, the Meerkat app will no longer be able to automatically push notifications that announce the live event to all of a Meerkater's Twitter followers. In other words, Meerkat will need to ask people to build their own social networks from scratch inside the app instead of using the network that its users already built on Twitter.
"Want to see something funny?" Rubin asks me.
He turns on his phone and shows me a tweet from October introducing Fabric, a mobile development platform that Twitter launched to encourage more apps on its platform. Jeff Seibert, director of product for Fabric, described it as "a modular mobile platform that makes it easy for developers to build great apps."
"…until they build a real great app, and then they shut it down," Rubin says, repeating a joke his friend made when he heard that Meerkat had been denied access to Twitter’s graph.
"I get it that when you own the house, you own the rules," Rubin says. "You can say, I’m about to launch my own app, and I don’t want you to have the graph. But I think the two hours was a little aggressive and not working toward building a community."
Rubin says that if he had more time, he would have been prepared with features for Meerkat that made it easy for people to discover each other without the Twitter graph, like search and discovery. These features were planned—Meerkat never wanted to stay on the Twitter graph forever—but in the blistering speed of the app’s rise to public consciousness, he has not prioritized those features. With some warning, perhaps he would have.
Rubin doesn’t think this is the end of his company—he’s already got a plan for creating more features for building a separate social graph—and didn’t let the news upend his night. He went to a party hosted by a VC firm, as planned.
When he woke up on Saturday morning, people were still using the app—at about twice the rate they were during the same hours the day before, he says. About 3,000 live streams before 11 a.m. in Austin.