Since the feature’s introduction earlier this year, we’ve spent a lot of time wondering what Facebook’s live video is really for — since it seems clear that, despite the company’s high hopes, it’s not a Snapchat-killing improvisational social feature that will drive up user engagement. But as the trash fire of 2016 burns on, more definitive answers have become apparent. Facebook Live is for documenting breaking news, such as when House Democrats held a sit-in, broadcasting while the C-SPAN feed was cut. It’s for documenting instances of police violence, like when Lavish Reynolds filmed the death of Philando Castile. And it’s for documenting coups, as happened last week in Turkey.
It’s not just that the failed coup provided yet another compelling reason for live video — it’s that it was the first time I can recall that Facebook’s global map of live feeds was legitimately useful, rather than a time-killing gimmick. Flipping between feeds in Ankara and Istanbul (and elsewhere in the country), you could see protests, panic, and in many cases, somewhat mundane footage of people commiserating as sirens pulsed in the background.
What set the streams coming from Turkey apart from other live-video moments is that it wasn’t just a single person’s feed like Reynolds’s, or sit-in documenter Representative Beto O’Rourke’s. During the coup, Live worked in aggregate: Clicking between different feeds provided a larger, holistic sense of what the country was experiencing over the course of the night.
The map, and Facebook Live, were gripping, and genuinely useful to people who wanted to follow the developments in Turkey as closely as possible. But this is Silicon Valley, and “useful” isn’t quite enough. You have to make money, too, and an attempted military coup is not something that Facebook brands can replicate or monetize (though maybe someone should get Lockheed Martin on the phone). It joins the House sit-in and the death of Castile in this respect. These are things that people want to see, and should be seen, as they happen. They are news events for which live video is essential.
The problem is that this isn’t what Facebook wanted. Live was explicitly created to encourage users to share more personal, original content, but it’s found its greatest successes when users are sharing difficult, critical, nationally or globally important video. Not only is this not advertiser friendly, but Facebook, as we learned during the Trending Topics mini-scandal, is institutionally averse to engaging the kind of important and difficult editorial decisions that characterize a news organization. Facebook wants to be known as the site you post birthday photos to, not the site on which you document a military coup, or your boyfriend’s death at the hands of cops. And yet, between its ubiquity, its infrastructure, and its engineering know-how, Facebook has created a brilliant tool for journalism. The only question is whether it will accept that.