Tech

Why Facebook And Mark Zuckerberg Went All In On Live Video

Facebook threw the company behind a massive push to add a slew of new features to its Live video as it takes on Snapchat, Periscope, and traditional television itself. Get ready to broadcast.

Posted on

It was February, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was just back from paternity leave, sitting in on his first M team meeting since returning. M team meetings are where Facebook global management comes together — managers from engineering, product, sales, you name it — to talk about what’s going on with the company. And on that day, Fidji Simo and Maher Saba, who respectively run product and engineering for Facebook’s media projects, spoke about the company’s video efforts, Live in particular.

Facebook launched Live in August of last year. It’s a dead simple feature: Hit a button to live-stream video. Initially, Live was available only to celebrities and other verified Facebook users, like journalists. But in December, the company rolled it out to everyone. By February, it was clear Live was gaining impressive momentum — and quickly, too. Facebook had been betting on Live for a long time, but it was at this meeting that the company's vision for it really crystalized.

"When we roll things out occasionally you have these feelings like you’re looking at the beginning of something special, and we all had that feeling,” Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, told BuzzFeed News.

Simo described a similar pop of revelation. “There was this a-ha moment for everyone,” she said. “Zuck was like, 'Wait, if this thing is really taking off, why don’t we focus a lot more resources on it?'"

Facebook has been barreling hard into video. But for the most part, its offerings haven't looked that distinct from what you might see on YouTube or other video platforms. Live, on the other hand, was something new. Something different. And it was working.

“The big decision we made was to shift a lot of our video efforts to focus on Live, because it is this emerging new format; not the kind of videos that have been online for the past five or ten years," Zuckerberg said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. When the meeting was over, he fired off an email. A long one. And with that, it was on.

"For an engineer, when you read an email that long and detailed you immediately start treating it like a spec,” Saba explained. He and Simo broke out into two major parts: product work (the consumer-facing stuff we all see) and infrastructure (things like computing power, network issues, and storage). It was a challenge, but one the pair were certain they could meet. They just needed more bodies. "I read Zuck's email and thought of Jaws,” said Saba. “We need a bigger boat.”

The original Live team was composed of only a dozen or so people. But the vision laid out for the product at that February meeting would require more than 100 engineers to build. "The meeting was on a Thursday, and on Monday, Saba and I were standing in front of 150 engineers," said Simo. Cox, Saba, and Simo began holding a series of meetings to rally people around the project. They recruited engineers straight out of Facebook boot camp, pitching them by showing off what they were building, often using Live video itself to make their case. “At Facebook, we use Facebook to build Facebook,” Saba explained.

And so for much of February, and the entire month of March, Live video became Facebook’s monomania.

“The whole company used to run this way," said Cox, who has been with Facebook since 2005. "Ten or eleven years ago, we were all working on one thing at a time. People still want to be a part of that ... When everybody is on the floor all working on the same thing, there’s an extra focus and energy that comes with that.”

They had a small mountain of problems to solve. The list of new features to be added to Live was daunting — from streaming reactions across the video screen in real time, to adding video filters, to creating a map of live broadcasts, to allowing the capability to broadcast just to certain groups, even building what amount to channel guides that show which of your friends or pages you follow are live now. There is even a new Live video button right on the home row of the app itself. And the technical hurdles to implementing them were numerous.

Consider just the challenge of streaming from hundreds of thousands of phones all at once. Yes, you have to make sure you have the network and storage capacity to do that. But what’s much harder is video conversion. Facebook builds for the world. And the world runs a whole hell of a lot of Android phones. Unlike iPhones, which you can reliably count on to have the same hardware from one device to another, Android handsets come in an array of different chipsets, with different video encoding and decoding capabilities. Facebook had to ensure that it could process live video regardless of source, and then transmit it in a way that could be viewed no matter the destination. And it had to do that instantly. That requires a massive amount of computational power and engineering acumen. But it is also very much what Facebook is designed to do.

“We built this big technology platform so we can go and support whatever the most personal and emotional and raw and visceral ways people want to communicate are as time goes on,” said Zuckerberg.

The payoff had enormous potential. Live solves a lot of problems for Facebook. It gives people an easy way to create video content that doesn't require scripting or much production. Which in turn creates more content for Facebook. Live also helps the company tap into real-time events, an area where it’s struggled compared to Twitter. It helps Facebook create its own celebrities; there are already proto–Live stars emerging. (Facebook is also working with media companies to make sure there's plenty of slick stuff as well. BuzzFeed is among the partners to whom Facebook is advancing cash to encourage the production of Live videos, as Re/code first reported.) And if you look way down the road, you can just begin to see a version of the future in which Facebook has emerged as the place to watch the kind of live events you might now tune into a local or cable station to see. But most immediately, Live was a solid and novel win for Facebook video. And for Facebook, video is increasingly important.

“We’re entering this new golden age of video,” Zuckerberg told BuzzFeed News. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you fast-forward five years and most of the content that people see on Facebook and are sharing on a day-to-day basis is video.”

While Live began as a tool for celebrities, after opening up to the public, it was getting traction from the very demographics you want when you're thinking five years out.

“The thing that was really surprising for us was that it wasn’t just for public figures," Zuckerberg said. "It was a new, raw way that people wanted to share on a day-to-day basis. We’re seeing this especially with young people and teens.”

Indeed, one recent trend in social media has been a move away from highly produced content, particularly video. As Alex Kantrowitz reported for BuzzFeed News last year, what’s hot now in social is the raw, unfiltered window into the lives of others. A host of apps that launched in 2015 and 2016 — Periscope, Meerkat, Peach, and Beme among them — try to nail this experience. This is precisely what Snapchat is so good at, and why it has become such a threat to Facebook. And it’s clearly something that’s been on Zuckerberg’s mind as well.

“People look at live video and they think this is a lot of pressure because it’s live; it takes a lot of courage to go live and put yourself out there. But what we’re finding is the opposite," Zuckerberg said in a phone interview the day before the Live relaunch. "A lot of the biggest innovations have been things that take some of the pressure out of posting a photo or video."

“Because it’s live, there is no way it can be curated," he said. "And because of that it frees people up to be themselves. It’s live; it can’t possibly be perfectly planned out ahead of time. Somewhat counterintuitively, it’s a great medium for sharing raw and visceral content.”

And in fact, a lot of what Facebook built in the new version of the app seems to be designed to enhance that raw feeling, that sensation that you’re not seeing something scripted or performative. It's why the company spent so much effort on latency — lag time, in other words — so that everyone watching and commenting on a video can do so at precisely the same time, and the broadcaster can see and act on those comments as they happen. It's why it will now let people broadcast Live just to specific events or groups, because doing so frees people up to be more real than they might otherwise be with a wider, less specific audience. The idea is to get people to act like they normally would. But, you know, on video.

I saw this firsthand at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, when Simo cracked open her laptop to show me one of Live's new features, a map that displays where everyone in the world is going live. Circles show how big, or small, a Live broadcaster's audience is. At my request, Simo clicked on a small one in Africa to reveal...two guys in Angola staring languidly into the camera. They seemed to be just hanging out. It was oddly compelling.

We checked out another new feature, one that lets you see who is Live right now. These might be people or pages you follow, but you can also follow topics, like, say, sports. There's also a new search function to help with discovery. And Facebook will offer suggestions, so there will always be something to check out.

Simo follows Hillary Clinton. And, as luck would have it, the Democratic presidential candidate was broadcasting to Facebook Live from the Apollo Theater at the time of our meeting. As Clinton spoke, a steady stream of thumbs-up Facebook “like” icons flowed across the bottom of the screen. When she mentioned taking on the gun lobby, a “wow” face appeared, followed by a scowling “angry” face. These are yet another new feature of Live. Previously, viewers could only react to video in a static way — you gave one thumbs-up or angry face or whatever. That was, effectively, your rating for the entire video. The new version lets you react as the video plays, and streams these animated reactions, floating them across the bottom of the video as they roll in. If a reaction comes from someone you follow, you will see their profile picture as well.

What’s more, if you were to go back and watch the video later, you would see that reaction as it happened. If someone adds a thumbs-up or a comment, say, two minutes in, it will show up at the two-minute mark when the video is played back later. It’s sort of like a DVR for commentary and reactions.

If this all sounds a bit like Twitter’s live-streaming video app Periscope, which also has a map of people who are live, and also lets you react to videos in real time with icons (hearts that float up vertically), and also will play back those reactions and comments as they appeared in the video, well, yes, there are many similarities. When I asked Zuckerberg about this and what sets Live apart from Periscope or Meerkat or any number of other video apps with, er, ~similar~ features, he didn’t mince words: audience.

"If you’re a public figure, the audience is unprecedented," Zuckerberg said. "If you’re Jimmy Fallon and want to go live, it’s not really worth your time unless you can reach an audience that’s similar to what you can reach on TV." And while those numbers matter in aggregate for people like Fallon, they may even matter more on an individual level for regular people. "If you’re a person that just wants to share with your friends, it helps to have your friends there.”

Take that Hillary Clinton speech from Harlem. More than 240,000 people watched it, many live, and many more after the fact. Those sorts of numbers, if not routine, are at least not completely unusual. That’s been especially true since Facebook prioritized Live in its News Feed. A rush of publishers (BuzzFeed included) have barreled in to experiment and build audiences. Facebook already enjoys massive network effects, which means that you don’t have to build an audience for Live. It’s already there.

Meanwhile, Facebook is already creating its own Live celebrities and even genres. There’s Liz Cook, a tattoo artist who goes Live with inkings and has amassed more than 1 million followers. And Esther the Wonder Pig, who is, well, a highly successful pig. On Live, weird seems to work. (One of the most popular Live videos BuzzFeed has produced was a close-up of a guy popping bubble wrap during a GOP debate. Nearly 750,000 people watched it.)

And it seems clear where Facebook will eventually go with this: right at traditional broadcast. The company already made a play to win the rights to stream the NFL on Thursday nights (Twitter won these). It has reportedly been in discussions with celebrities about paying them to make Live video. And if someone can generate the same kind of audiences on Facebook Live as they can on a cable channel (and they can), why bother investing in much more expensive television broadcasts?

When I asked Zuckerberg about this, he sidestepped the question. “I think you would just do both," he offered. "The point isn’t that you have to make a choice, it’s that we’re giving people new tools.”

That may be true for now, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that will hold over the long term. A broadcaster's choices may be infinite, but your attention is not. And while Live may not signal the end of live television as we know it, Cox is correct: It definitely feels like the beginning of something.

UPDATE

Updated to add disclosure based on Re/code's initial reporting that BuzzFeed is a paid media partner, which BuzzFeed News has now confirmed.


Mat Honan is the San Francisco bureau chief for BuzzFeed News. Formerly a senior staff writer at Wired, he has been writing about the technology industry and its impact on society for nearly 20 years.

Contact Mat Honan at mat.honan@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.