Earlier today, BuzzFeed produced a video through Facebook’s new livestream product that was — if I’m being entirely honest — very good. At its peak, more than 800,000 people were simultaneously watching two BuzzFeed employees stretch rubber bands around a watermelon until the aggregate stress caused the melon to burst like that guy’s head in Scanners.
Right now, smart — or, at least, well-capitalized — media companies are trying to be “agile,” which mostly means changing their strategies frequently in order to focus on whatever kind of content has the best chance of appearing atop Facebook’s News Feed. “What appears atop Facebook’s News Feed,” however, is based on an ever-changing formula that only engineers at Facebook understand. Right now, Facebook is pushing live video hard — Facebook is subject to the whims of its users, who are sharing less original content; “Live” is an effort to encourage more original sharing — and so live video has a better chance of appearing in users’ feeds. Therefore: BuzzFeed is focusing heavily on live video.
We are still in the nascent days of frictionless live webcasts of this kind, and so media organizations, thirsty for the attention fire hose that Facebook can point in their direction, are experimenting (or talking about experimenting) with Facebook Live content. Oddly enough, vivid examples of extremely uncompelling livestreams can be found … over at BuzzFeed. On the BuzzFeed Now Page, attempts to recreate game shows and four-square competitions in 20-minute snippets fall flat, mainly because they are so aggressive in their attempts to replicate traditional media formats and personality-based entertainment. For other organizations, Live video experimentation more closely resembles traditional journalistic forms: interviews, explanations, documentation of newsworthy events occurring.
This content is valuable and edifying, but it is not what Facebook Live is for, and it is not what will work for live web video.
The exploding watermelon is the best illustration of what works for live web video.
Livestreams work best when they’re immediately arresting, visually and narratively, so that people can enter at any moment, from the very beginning to the very end, and understand immediately what’s happening. It’s hard to do that with interviews, or game shows, or news reports. That’s why streams on Twitch, the Amazon-owned video-game livestreaming site, are so compelling — they feature someone doing a repetitive act for a long time, just like watching someone stretch 763 rubber bands around a fruit for a long time.
And it was long: By the standards of web video, 45 minutes is an eternity. This, too, is right: No one is going to make the effort in exchange for five minutes of low-res video of someone’s face. You want the sort of thing you can keep in the corner of the screen and check in on every so often. Three-quarters of an hour of slowly building tension gives a video plenty of time to disseminate across Facebook and other platforms.
Which leads me, finally, to the other quality of a good Facebook Live video: Slow is good. The first webcam in history was invented so that scientists could see whether or not there was still coffee in the kitchen. In Australia, a live feed of a pitch drop experiment (pitch is a type of tar 230 billion times thicker than water) carries on. The drop has at least another decade before it falls, but you can bet more people will tune in as the moment nears. And that’s the important thing about the tar drop: Just like the watermelon, it’s building toward a release.
But it’s also over. And here’s the real problem: I don’t want to see another watermelon livestream ever again. It happened once; it was good; and it should never happen again. The downside of long, boring livestreams is that people will sit through them once and then never again. Facebook Live, spontaneous and intimate in its affect, isn’t a format that lends itself to regular, consistent broadcasts, like television. It’s for one-off stunts and pranks. And like most formats made for goofs, it won’t have a long shelf life. You can get nearly a million people to watch you blow up a watermelon once, but you won’t get that many again. If media companies are going to invest more resources in Facebook Live, they’re going to need to find something new to blow up.