The Live Video Obsession

on April 7, 2016

On Wednesday, Facebook held an event designed to announce progress on its Live Video product. Mark Zuckerberg hosted a live video and the company began rolling out a new video tab to its mobile apps as well as a number of other enhancements to the service. This is, of course, part of a broader trend among major technology companies, with many now investing in live video. It’s said to be something of an obsession for Zuckerberg in particular, but it’s not yet clear it will be as much of an obsession for users.

What has become clear is live video is becoming the latest step in what’s now a fairly obvious and consistent progression in the richness of the media that makes up social applications. Not all such apps start with text – Snapchat famously focused on photos from the outset – but almost all of these social apps eventually seem to make their way through this series of increasingly rich media, from plain text (usually eventually including URLs) to photos to video and now to live video. Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat now all feature some form of live or semi-live video product and it’s an area of heavy investment for each of them.

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This week, several publications reported on interviews with members of the Live Video team at Facebook that the decision to invest heavily in the product was made when it became clear the early product was very popular — indeed, more popular than Facebook anticipated. However, we still don’t have much of a benchmark for that popularity in the context of Facebook’s broader video push. It’s likely the numbers for live video specifically are a tiny fraction of the volumes for video as a whole on Facebook.

The big challenge with live video is it requires the serendipitous pairing in real time of a broadcaster with something to show and an audience that’s ready and interested in what’s being shown. Unlike the more typical asynchronous video we’re used to seeing online, to be really effective, live video needs to be consumed in the moment. I suspect that’s a big reason why these various companies are investing in live video – it gives people a reason to tune in at times when they might not normally think of checking in on that particular social network or app – but people’s actual ability to do so will continue to be limited by the realities of daily life. In addition, there just isn’t that much compelling in people’s everyday lives to be of interest as a live video. Most events can either be captured and shared non-live or broadcast live to a single other party – showing grandma the baby’s first steps, for example.

This is why I suspect we’re seeing so many celebrities gravitating towards live video and dominating live video both on Facebook and other platforms – activities which might be humdrum in ordinary people’s lives take on new significance for fans and followers of these celebrities. Live video can provide a sense of access into celebrities’ lives which other media can’t and that’s part of its power – it’s arguably extending what Twitter has already done in this area in a way that’s even more intimate. But this is also why I suspect live video will likely continue to fizzle as a broadcast medium for regular people and will, instead, likely come to resemble more and more the forms of live video we’re already used to from television and other existing media – highly produced and starring celebrities rather than truly “raw” as Zuckerberg and others suggested this week. Other aspects will come to resemble video calling more than broadcasting. Facebook’s announcement this week of a feature that allows users to broadcast to small groups or individuals makes a lot of sense in this context, too.

The one exception to all this is when ordinary individuals unexpectedly find themselves in the midst of breaking news situations where the professionals are absent – the most obvious example is disasters, whether natural or man-made. Twitter’s Periscope has often been at its most powerful in these situations, as a combination of desire for up-to-the-minute news and voyeurism drives people to seek out on-the-ground live footage. Just as camera phones and then smartphones suddenly began to capture much more of reality in stills and then video, readily accessible live video will mean events that previously went largely unseen until their aftermaths will now be captured. Armies of smartphone-toting citizens are today’s Zapruders. The reality, of course, is these events are (thankfully) few and far between and therefore, though they provide temporary bumps for the popularity of live video services for the masses, that excitement tends to fade fast.

The other big question is how broadcasters and their hosts will make money from all this. Reports suggest Facebook eventually backed out of the NFL rights negotiations because it didn’t want to use advertising to monetize football broadcasts, a surprising contention but one borne out by Facebook’s apparent reluctance to roll out advertising on its Live Video product. It’s apparently working on a business model for the service and has even started to pay some celebrities and content providers to provide live video footage, but we don’t know exactly how this will work. In a day when DVRs and ad-blockers are the norm, truly compelling live video continues to be one of the few remaining options for showing people video ads they can’t skip but that doesn’t seem to be the route Facebook wants to go. I’m very curious to see what it ends up doing. A heavy ad load would certainly replicate another less attractive feature of existing live video services.