The Real Problem with Facebook Live

This morning’s Wall Street Journal has a smart look back at Facebook Live after about a year of the service being available, although it misses the real Achilles heel of the service.

Here is a relevant snippet from WSJ:

Nearly a year later, many publishers say Facebook Live viewership is lackluster. Facebook is still tinkering with ways for them to earn money from their broadcasts. Facebook doesn’t disclose viewer data or financial results for Facebook Live.

The article also goes into detail about Facebook’s ethical challenges about how to deal with live-streamed acts of violence, perhaps most prominently the Minnesota death of Philando Castile after a police officer shot him and Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, put the chilling incident onto Facebook Live as it happened.

And the article talks glowingly of the now-famous Chewbacca Mom video that turned Candace Payne into a short-term celebrity after the video was viewed 166 Million times and after Kohl’s brilliantly jumped on the opportunity to turn her video into a sort of found poetry form of content marketing.

Here’s another important snippet:

“There is an insatiable appetite for things happening live,“ said Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Facebook, by combining the process of normalizing this technology and its scale, inherits the upside of making this a mainstream platform, as well as the downside.”

Zuckerman is right about the appetite for things happening live, but this also shows the problem with Facebook Live: most of the time for most people the video isn’t live at all… it was merely recorded live and viewers have the option of playing it back later.

In other words, there is no urgency to Facebook Live.  It will be there whenever you want it, and it’s unlikely that you will want it anyway because what you’re really getting is somebody’s amateurish home movies at scale.

Unlike Snapchat, which has a “now or never” quality because things vanish, Facebook Live video’s are indelible.

Candace Payne’s delightful video racked up 166 million views because it was indelible, and because it was delightful it spread like wildfire, but that’s not a recipe that anybody can repeat reliably.

The beauty of live experience — in life, the theater, concerts, politics — is that at any moment things might go horribly wrong, and so when the don’t go badly it’s a relief and a celebration.

When things are already finished, recorded or — in the words of Mikhail Bakhtin — “finalized” they are less urgent than something happening right now.

Watching Facebook Live videos after the fact is like the ironic experience of growing up on the West Coast and watching “Saturday Night Live” when it was recorded live three hours previously but isn’t anymore: it’s Saturday Night Dead… an irony made all the more palpable in 2017 by East Coasters tweet-spoiling all the good bits before folks in the west have a chance to see them.

Unlike SNL, which is 90 minutes long, most Facebook Live posts are short, and there’s no infrastructure beyond a poster’s social graph to promote that an exciting video is happening right now… if the video even is exciting.  (I just found a webcam of a Giraffe happily munching straw.  Yawn.)

With the exception of breaking news (with the aforementioned ethical challenges), by the time you hear about something happening on Facebook Live it’s already pretty much over.

For a live experience to be satisfying, you have to be there or be watching as it happens, know what you’re looking at, and pay attention.

Those things are unlikely to happen with Facebook Live.

P.S. I’ve been talking about “eventness” for years, including here.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

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