Zuckerberg Really Wants You to Stream Live Video on Facebook

FACEBOOK really wants you to enjoy live video on Facebook. So much so that the company announced a dedicated video space on its mobile app along with several other features today in the hopes that you will watch and broadcast more videos live.

Facebook Live creative tools / FACEBOOK
“Live is like having a TV camera in your pocket. Anyone with a phone now has the power to broadcast to anyone in the world,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on his Facebook page. “This is a big shift in how we communicate, and it’s going to create new opportunities for people to come together.”

This aggressive push to get you to watch and share live has been in the works for a while. Facebook launched its live video service last year for celebrities and public figures before offering the option of live streaming to regular people, too.

Since then, you’ve had the chance to hang out live as Ricky Gervais took a bath, Tony Hawk skated, Alton Brown cooked, and Lester Holt wandered around during his lunch break. We’ve also seen journalists broadcast from location, astronauts answer questions about space, and star athletes say hello from their locker rooms.

The company’s efforts to get you to watch and broadcast live isn’t arbitrary. With more than 1.5 billion users worldwide, Facebook has a real opportunity to showcase breaking news, intimate personal moments, and behind-the-scenes stories from just about anywhere in a way that surpasses TV networks and challenges incumbents like Periscope. All of which is pretty incredible.

It recognizes that power as well as the financial opportunity it represents. Facebook is an ad-driven business capitalizing on the specialness of being in the moment. Live is, well, live. You have to be there when it happens to really be there (even if you can catch a replay later). For a company like Facebook, which wants you to spend as much of your time as possible on the service so it can show you more ads, there’s no better way to get you to come back and stay than by promising live experiences you won’t get anywhere else. In that way, Facebook wants to be your new, customizable TV, your way into a Super Bowl locker room, your peek behind the scenes at the Oscars, your opportunity to skydive, your very own live Truman Show all while sitting at your desk.

But, most of all, it wants you to keep coming back.

Facebook Live map / FACEBOOK
You Can Hear the Crowd
So what’s new? First and foremost, Facebook is rolling out a “dedicated place” where you can search for live and non-live videos as well as choose to broadcast for yourself. You’ll be able to get there by touching a tab in the Facebook app that brings you to a video section away from your News Feed. In addition, Facebook is rolling out a geographic map, so you can see where people are broadcasting live around the world.

Little things can make a big difference. Facebook knows you might not want to broadcast your workout to your entire network. So, while Facebook has previously allowed anyone to “go live” to their friends, you can now broadcast for specific groups and events. And much like Facebook-owned Instagram, the company will let you use “filters” on live broadcasts.

Moreover, Facebook is incorporating its new Reactions (“Like,” “Love,” “Wow,” “Haha, “Sad,” and “Angry”) directly into broadcasts much like Twitter’s Periscope features heart reactions. Those reactions will pop up in the frame during a broadcast, then quickly disappear. “It’s like hearing the crowd applaud and cheer,” Fidji Simo, a Facebook product management director, said in a blog post today.

That’s important, Facebook says, because initial data reveals that viewers comment “more than 10 times more on Facebook Live videos than regular ones.” Part of the fun of live videos, after all, is the real-time interaction be it with questions, opinions, or just getting a chance to tell your favorite musician “Wow.”

Scarcity Is King
For Facebook, Live has its own set of challenges. When Zuckerberg went live today to talk about the new features, his page stalled for some people trying to watch (like me). In another live Q&A on Facebook (where else?) today, Chris Cox, the company’s chief product officer, said that Facebook has more than a hundred people working on Live. He explained that Facebook needs to be able to serve up millions of simultaneous streams without crashing (ahem), including some where perhaps millions are watching, as well as seamless streams across different devices and service providers around the world. (So far, Live has only launched in 60 countries.) “It turns out it’s a really hard infrastructure problem,” Cox said.

So, why is Facebook putting so much energy into live broadcasting? Don’t most people look goofy anyway? For one, video has become central to Facebook. In the past few years, Facebook has increasingly prioritized video in News Feed, and we’ve all dutifully watched. In the past, Zuckerberg has explained it by saying that he believes we’re moving toward more immersive experiences online, and that moving images are more immersive than text.

“It’s a significant investment in a new media type,” says Brian Blau, a longtime personal technologies researcher at Gartner. “It gives users another way to interact with one another, and it gives brands another way to interact with their customers.”  In its early days, Facebook didn’t even allow people to post photos. But today, serving up all kinds of media is crucial for the company.

So, live video is the next logical extension of video, but there’s also something crucially special about “live.” It’s an intimate experience, and you have to be there when it happens. If you’re a San Francisco Giants fan, for example, you will be at your TV (or digital stream) when they’re playing. You just will. If you’re a huge Beyoncé fan, you’ll do whatever you can (and pay pretty much whatever you must) to get tickets to see her when she comes to your city on tour.

Facebook wants to create those same kinds of “must-be-present” experiences. “In a digital economy the one thing that is scarce is something that’s live,” says Tim Mulligan, a longtime video analyst for MIDiA Research. “If you have a live streaming event, that’s scarce by its very nature.”

When I stream or you stream (sorry!) we’re probably not going to generate the kind of “must-see hype” Facebook wants, but it reportedly has a plan to get celebrities and media companies in on the live action by paying them. That may hint at the Facebook’s future. Imagine if Facebook one day streams live sports games, live music festivals, or even live Q&As (like Reddit IAmAs) with really interesting people. Imagine, too, the advertising opportunities for companies to, say, sponsor a one-time-only live event or to stream a celebrity spokesperson using their products. Live could become a reason to sign onto Facebook, and Facebook’s hoping it’s another reason to stay.



Facebook Live: Now You Can Never Leave

It’s often difficult inside a closed system to see the boundaries that surround you. Sometimes you think you can see the whole of the universe. This is how closed systems like it: their inhabitants looking out through a distorted curvature that gives shape to space that is not there. This is how Facebook, Apple, and other technology platforms hope to trap and keep you. Sated, oblivious, and well fed. But human beings are not good with closed systems, and so, eventually, we see the fences, and then we run our hands along them to feel for shape and structure. We study how the fence weaves into and out of the trees. And one day, when the sun has gone down and the guards are asleep, we catapult over to the other side, and see all the things we couldn’t see before.
This week Mark Zuckerberg announced a new video-streaming service, Facebook Live, the next step in his company’s mission to control every aspect of our digital experience.
I wrote several years ago that Facebook’s dream is not to be your favorite destination on the Internet; its desire is to be the Internet. It would prefer that when you connect in the digital realm an increasingly all-encompassing expanse you do it within Facebook, which now includes Instagram, Whatsapp, and Oculus VR (in addition to its robust news feed, its Messenger chat app, its Moments photo-sharing platform, its video-player platform... well, you get the idea). This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon; for years technology companies have waged platform battles, hoping to lock in users with hardware, software, or services that only function inside a proprietary venue. Closed systems make your patronage simpler and more consistent, and it is through a closed system that a company can most readily own and control your data, which is then converted to revenue.

Facebook has been particularly focussed on three areas lately: publishers’ content (that is, all the stuff that makes Facebook worth reading), video (the thing every creator on the Internet must do right now), and the youth market (all the people Facebook will need tomorrow). In all three places, the company has been playing a haphazard game of catch-up, trying to concoct a mixture of services, partnerships, acquisitions, and outright steamrolling that will insure ownership and control of these three crucial axes.

On Wednesday it launched a service called Facebook Live, which simultaneously takes aim at the trifecta. The new feature essentially a riff on Twitter’s Periscope and Snapchat’s native video sharing hopes to keep you plugged in to its news feed with live, streaming video not only from the people you follow and regularly connect with but from news organizations and celebrities around the world. Mark Zuckerberg announced the feature using Live itself, and, though a glitch prevented him from showing off the service, he did talk, and he was quite enthusiastic. “We built this big technology platform so we can go and support whatever the most personal and emotional and raw and visceral ways people want to communicate are as time goes on,” Zuckerberg told BuzzFeed News.

Once you see it, it looks awfully familiar. In fact, parts of it seem nearly identical to Snapchat. Filters that allow you to alter the color and quality of the image, and drawing tools that allow you to paint over top of your video (a feature Facebook says is on the way), will make users of that quickly growing social app feel right at home and that’s not an accident. Recent studies show that the generation following behind Millennials (or, more accurately, people born between the early eighties and the early aughts) are becoming less interested in Facebook. Remember, if Facebook wants to be the Internet, it has to be the Internet for the next age, too.

The company has taken a similar brute-force approach in its attempt at dominating and controlling the mechanism through which we read our news. Obviously, the service has tremendous value as a layer of distribution for news outlets and media producers, including The New Yorker. But, increasingly, Facebook has moved to control more and more of the actual experience of reading and viewing news with tools like Instant Articles and an aggressive approach to leveraging its video platform for publishers. It used to just link readers to publishers’ Web sites. Now the company is focussed on having publishers present their stories wholly inside of Facebook. That work seems to be doubled in its rollout of Live, as the social network is literally paying major media organizations like the Times, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, Condé Nast (The New Yorker’s parent company), and others to use the new service. That combination makes for an ethical gray area when you consider some of the excited news coverage of the service. The blurred line between a company’s news apparatus and its business-side relationship with Facebook is a wonderful example of how Facebook’s tactics in the market can have negative results for users.

If anything, Live further exposes Facebook’s active, seemingly unquenchable thirst for more ways to become the middleman in your digital interactions. It literally wants you to broadcast your life on the platform. But, as noted earlier, being caged doesn’t come that naturally to humans. In fact, the mass proliferation of new social networks, apps, and experiences over the past decade shows our innate hunger for variety and surprise. New experiences like Snapchat might never have happened inside Facebook, because in many ways it’s a reaction to Facebook itself. The rawness and ephemeral nature of Snapchat’s “disappearing” content is the locus of its appeal: it allows you to share, connect, interact, and then move on. The youth market isn’t embracing the app because of its inclusion in the same social network their parents use; they’re embracing it because it eschews the very foundation upon which Zuckerberg and company have built their empire permanence.

Compare Facebook’s interlocking approach with one of Silicon Valley’s most long-lived and dominant success stories: Google. Both companies have been wildly successful at upending our notions of how to navigate the world, but Google’s core product search is expressly designed to do the opposite of what Facebook attempts. Search, by its very nature, is an action that leads you away from the platform, into other experiences and onto other platforms. Even though Google has built up a relatively sophisticated infrastructure of services around its search product (which plenty of critics argue has created another kind of closed loop), it has never abandoned the foundational element of its business: openness.

Live is a fine enough product, and it’s likely that many Facebook customers will find themselves tuning in from time to time, or even broadcasting themselves. But others, I suspect, will find the three-hundred-and-sixty-degree, everything-all-the-time nature of Facebook’s ecosystem increasingly tiring and predictable a homogenous experience that begs someone to start exploring to the edges of the forest. An experience that leads to the discovery of a fence.

If history is any guide, people are omnivorous and fickle. Facebook might want to take a stab at a platform play that isn’t just about keeping the ground it has stamped out but that encourages inclusion and exploration. It may discover that its real strength isn’t in just what it keeps for itself but in what it’s able to give up.

By JOSHUA TOPOLSKY / newyorker.com