Facebook is debuting a YouTube competitor called “Watch” that lets you subscribe to shows inside Facebook’s apps and desktop site and watch them in a dedicated tab. Watch will roll out in the US with a few dozen shows tomorrow, but it will eventually go global and feature thousands of series.
Introducing a marquee video product is no small deal for Facebook, and for its competitors. Here are a few critical things to know about Watch, and what its release will mean for Facebook and the video industry.
1. This is not a Netflix competitor
Early reports of Facebook signing deals to make video series (such as one featuring LaVar Ball and his supremely talented basketball player sons) made it seem like Facebook was aiming to build a new Netflix — i.e. that it planned to pay for content and distribute it. But that’s not what’s exactly happening here. In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Facebook product director Daniel Danker repeatedly stressed that Watch is a platform, meaning anyone can upload shows to be featured in the tab. This is more similar to YouTube than any other major video platform in existence today.
2. Facebook’s Watch is similar to YouTube, and will likely face similar controversies
YouTube seems to regularly deal with controversy over the videos users upload on its site. That’s a sign of what may be on the way for Facebook, which has already experienced criticism for the violence that often appears in its live video streams. YouTube, you may recall, came under fire in 2016 from video makers upset about its practice of preventing advertising from appearing next to videos it deems too offensive. And then it faced heat from advertisers upset that their advertising was still appearing next to such videos. Essentially, YouTube is in the middle of a war over how heavy-handed it should be in regulating video appearing inside of it. Facebook already has plenty of video, but Watch will likely draw in more professional video creators who depend on getting paid. So Facebook could face similar issues here too. “Content gets taken off the platform if it doesn’t adhere to the community standards,” Danker said, setting the stage for the first showdown.
3. Facebook’s algorithms will suggest relevant series based off your interests and connections
Facebook possesses a powerful graph of its 2 billion users’ interests and connections, giving it a pretty good idea about what interests us (this is a big part of why its advertising works so well). The company is going to put this knowledge to work inside Watch, using it to suggest shows it thinks we’re interested in, and placing them in categories such as “What friends are watching” and “Most talked about.” It will also use data from reactions: Videos with lots of “haha” reactions will be highlighted in a “What’s making people laugh,” category, for example.
4. Watch seems ripe for "filter bubble" effects
Because Watch’s algorithms consider your interests and connections when suggesting shows, the product seems susceptible to enhancing the filter bubble — an algorithmically curated world of content made up of views you largely agree with. Asked about this, Danker said Watch’s Discover section highlights shows you haven’t subscribed to, broadening your world view. But Facebook has been known to value time spent on its platform, which can emphasize showing you stuff agree with — a noted problem in the run-up to the 2016 election. It’s something to keep an eye on here too, since time watched is a key video success metric.
5. Facebook is paying for some shows on Watch, but it’s avoiding political content
Facebook is paying some video creators to make shows for Watch, which Danker said is meant to seed the type of content the company would like to see more of. Notably, Danker told BuzzFeed News that Watch’s debut won’t feature any politics-themed content, despite that being a popular content format on YouTube.
6. This seems to be Facebook’s admission that it needs professional video
By 2021, Mark Zuckerberg anticipates Facebook will be made up of mostly video. But if you thought your Aunt Suzie’s uploads or the hysterical Chewbacca mom were going to be what carried the company there, think again. Traditional user-generated content may have built Facebook, but professional video content will carry it into its future. Watch emphasizes that point.
7. Groups will be a major boost to Watch
Facebook Groups are going to be tightly integrated with Watch, creating natural places for fans to discuss shows. In a demo, Danker showed one show’s official group highlighted right underneath an episode, which is premium placement. Groups can be a place where a show’s stars interact with their fans, he said, and where the fans talk about the show on their own. Given that Facebook is placing emphasis on Groups in its quest to build stronger communities, the integration of Groups here stands to encourage people using Facebook to stay longer and watch even more videos.
8. Show creators will take home 55% of the money from ad breaks on their videos
And they can choose where those ad breaks go. They can also post branded shows and keep 100% of the money.
9. Facebook’s key video advantage: It’s everywhere
The Watch tab will show up in Facebook’s app, its desktop site, and inside its smart TV app. This will allow people to watch Facebook’s shows on any screen. And since people spend so much time using Facebook, its video offering will be hard to miss and easy to pick up no matter where they are.
Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.
Contact Alex Kantrowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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