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What Is Live Video For?

Mark Zuckerberg, doing it live.

We’re now roughly a year into the great Live-Video Rush of ’16, set off by the (already pivoted) streaming app Meerkat at SXSW 2015. Live Video is the hot accessory for every social network. Tumblr and teen-favorite lip-synching app both announced this week the introduction of live-video features; Twitter acquired Periscope. And, of course: Facebook Live. On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook is spending some $50 million on 140 partnership deals with celebrities and news outlets to create live video for the social network:

The social network’s partners vary widely. It includes established media outfits like CNN and the New York Times; digital publishers like Vox Media, Tastemade, Mashable and the Huffington Post; and celebrities including Kevin Hart, Gordon Ramsay, Deepak Chopra and NFL quarterback Russell Wilson.

Just what everyone has been hoping for from Facebook: Russell Wilson … live!

It’s hard to blame digital publishers for chasing live video, and not just because Facebook is paying them. Ad buyers are more likely to cut deals for video advertisements, bringing in more revenue than sites might against “print” content. And, more to the point, live video is enormously popular: It’s seen, commented on, and shared by people at a scale that no other content on Facebook can really claim right now.

The problem with investing a huge amount of resources in live production, though, is Facebook Live is popular because Facebook — an enormous technology platform with a billion and a half users and counting — wills it to be so. Put reductively, some developers tweaked a couple of algorithm variables so that live video shows up more frequently in the news feed.

And Facebook is pushing live video hard not simply because Facebook is looking to compete for television advertising money (though it is), but because Facebook itself is anxious about the future. People are sharing less about themselves, which slows Facebook’s growth and cuts at the heart of its most profitable product, the News Feed. Live — which, Mark Zuckerberg will tell you, is more authentic, off the cuff, spur of the moment — is one attempt to solve that problem.

Facebook’s power is such that it can create and incentivize (and, if that doesn’t work, more or less literally force) a new form of News Feed content onto consumers in the span of a couple of months. But that speed and power also means that a lot of money is being invested, by Facebook and others, into a technology whose central question — “Why should this be live?” — hasn’t yet been adequately answered.

Or, put more specifically, it’s been answered on the business side, but not on the user side. One of the great consumer-friendly qualities of the internet is that it’s asynchronous. You can catch up with media consumption at your leisure. The current mode of live-video implementation flies in the face of this. Facebook and Twitter’s Periscope send push notifications alerting users to whenever someone they follow goes live. But this “drop everything” assumption is weighted toward the broadcaster, not viewer choice. “Chewbacca Mom,” for instance, is the most-watched Facebook Live video of all time. But that designation is misleading. It doesn’t mean that a record number of people watched this woman lose her shit in real time, it means that a record number watched it in its archival form on demand. At that point, the video is just … a standard upload.

Publishers make it worse by trying to mimic the traditional television formats that came before them. Two talking heads arguing about the news; Martha Stewart giving a cooking tutorial. But these formats don’t work, and they certainly don’t get users invested. Traditional appointment viewing of “shows” flies in the face of what works online. The ability to tune in at any point and understand what’s happening is essential to the success of live internet video — not tuning in the moment someone goes live. It’s why that watermelon livestream was such a hit, and it’s the core component of video-game-streaming services, like Twitch, that are so successful. On YouNow, a popular premise is watching teenagers sleep. Live video on the web doesn’t need to be flashy, and it certainly shouldn’t mimic older formats. Counterintuitively, it needs to be boring and slow.

As long as Facebook pays them, media companies will keep creating live video, and as long as Facebook keeps pushing live video, so will its smaller rivals. But “because of Facebook” has never been a good answer to “why” questions in digital publishing, and unless publishers start thinking about what live video is actually for, and what its strengths are, it’s just going to be another expensive trend.

What Is Live Video For?