Last year, live video transformed from a dull commodity into a mainstream phenomenon, led by Snapchat, Meerkat, and Twitter’s acquisition of Periscope. But perhaps no company has embraced live video with the aggression of Facebook, where CEO Mark Zuckerberg is said to be "obsessed" with its potential. After introducing the ability to broadcast live to all users in December, today the company is rolling out a host of upgrades designed to make live video a core part of Facebook.
If you want to see how seriously Facebook is taking video, just take a look at the flagship app on Android and iOS, where the company today begins rolling out a dedicated tab for finding live and archived videos. It’s now the center tab in the app, replacing Messenger. "We really believe that the future is going to be more immersive, and video is a big part of that," said Fidji Simo, product management director at Facebook. The tab includes different sections for broadcasts happening around the world and broadcasts by your friends and the pages you follow. You can also search for videos by topic. Facebook says the tab is rolling out to "a very small percentage" of users; with the rest of the changes rolling out more broadly.
Facebook will begin paying publishers to produce live videos
Another sign of how hard Facebook is pushing live video: it is signing deals with publishers to produce a certain number of live videos each month. Facebook is promising to pay some publishers in cash up front and eventually share in revenues generated from the videos, though they are currently not supported by ads. Given the larger size of Facebook's audience, the move could threaten the growth of Periscope, which does not pay any of its broadcasters. Vox Media, which owns The Verge, is finalizing a live video deal with Facebook. (Facebook declined to comment about its publisher deals; some details of its paid video plans were reported last month by Variety.)
The features rolling out today are designed to get you to broadcast more— and to watch more broadcasts. You can now broadcast privately to any group you’re a part of — useful for families or social clubs with far-flung members. You can also broadcast to people who have RSVP’d for an event, taking them backstage at a performance or showing them the scene at something they may attend later. And if you’re watching a good live video, you can invite a friend inside the broadcast, and they’ll receive a push notification asking them to join you.
Facebook is also working to make broadcasting feel more interactive. Until now, it has often felt like shouting into a void — viewers could only leave a single "like" on a broadcast, and anyone watching a replay would see every comment already posted, so that they were all taken out of context.
Borrowing liberally from Periscope
Fortunately, Periscope had already solved these problems, and Facebook has shamelessly adopted its solutions. Just as Periscope lets you signal your continued interest in a broadcast by sending infinite hearts, Facebook will now let you send a broadcaster infinite likes — along with hearts, wows, and all the rest of its new like button reactions. (Rather than bubble up, as on Periscope, they flutter from right to left.) And just as Periscope shows you comments in the order they appeared during replays, so now will Facebook.
Just in case that’s not enough Periscope features for you, Facebook has also appropriated its live map of broadcasts. As on Periscope, you can see where people are broadcasting from around the world, and click on a broadcast to open it. For now, Facebook’s live map is limited to the desktop; at press time, the company couldn't tell me what the URL would be. I asked Simo why so many of its live video features appeared to borrow from Periscope. "It was just a natural evolution," she told me.
The update also allows broadcasters to apply filters to their broadcast, though they’re currently limited to basic color effects — black and white, sepia tone, and so on. Soon, broadcasters will be able to draw on their broadcasts as well — think Telestrator.
After a late start, an urgent push
Taken together, it’s a lot of change arriving inside Facebook all at once. It’s significant that Facebook, which only began testing live video broadcasts last August, has already rolled the feature out in 60 countries. That urgency reflects the size of the opportunity — video-centered apps like Snapchat are partially replacing television for young people, and the successor to television will reap billions in advertising revenue once reserved for TV. But Facebook’s urgency also comes from the fact that it’s starting late. Snapchat, Twitter, and Google’s YouTube have had a head start in the space, and their products were built for video from the beginning. Until recently, Zuckerberg described Facebook as a "personalized newspaper" — the transition to personalized TV channel could be wrenching.
I wonder if Facebook isn’t overcorrecting here. Live video is undoubtedly a powerful tool — as a journalist, I relish having what amounts to a broadcast TV studio in my pocket, and as a viewer, I enjoying watching friends and media personalities clowning around. At its best, it’s engrossing.
But the flip side of an "immersive" medium is that it demands your full attention. Facebook is the archetypal time-killing app you scroll through while in line at Starbucks or sitting on public transit. Live video, on the other hand, requires that you put in your earbuds so you can hear what's being said. There can be a data cost, too — if you’re not on Wi-Fi, live video can chew through your monthly plan in a hurry. Facebook says that users can’t get enough video, live or otherwise. But there have been early signs of a backlash against all the live video notifications, and it’s likely to grow after these updates.
On one hand, Facebook is just adhering to the ruthless logic of Silicon Valley: disrupt yourself, lest you be disrupted by someone else. Standing still is nearly always riskier than sprinting. And yet there’s still something about Facebook’s belated embrace of live video that comes across as inauthentic. It’s an offensive built on ideas taken from other companies, packaged as a great leap forward. Everything is a remix, sure, but here’s hoping Facebook’s future efforts around video look more original — and more like Facebook.