They’ve Got You, Wherever You Are

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at the announcement of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to ‘cure, prevent, or manage all disease’ by the end of the century, San Francisco, September 2016
Beck Diefenbach/Reuters
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at the announcement of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to ‘cure, prevent, or manage all disease’ by the end of the century, San Francisco, September 2016

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Earlier this year, Facebook announced a major new initiative called Facebook Live, which was intended to encourage the consumption of minimally produced, real-time video on its site. The videos would come from news organizations such as The New York Times, as well as from celebrities and Facebook users. Interpreted by some as an effort to challenge Snapchat, the app popular with teenagers in which content quickly vanishes, Live reflects the trend toward video’s becoming the dominant consumer and commercial activity on the Web. Following the announcement, one executive at the company predicted that in five years the Facebook News Feed wouldn’t include any written articles at all, because video “helps us to digest more of the information” and is “the best way to tell stories.”

Facebook’s News Feed is the largest source of traffic for news and media sites, representing 43 percent of their referrals, according to the web analytics firm Parse.ly. So when Facebook indicates that it favors a new form of content, publishers start making a lot of it. In this case, news organizations including the Times, BuzzFeed, NPR, and Al Jazeera began streaming live videos, which were funded in part by $50 million in payments from Facebook itself. These subsidies were thought necessary because live video carries no advertising, and thus produces no revenue for Facebook or its partners.

Why, if it generates no revenue, is Facebook pushing video streaming so insistently? For the same reason that it does almost everything: in hopes of capturing more user attention. According to the company’s research, live videos—which feel more spontaneous and authentic—are viewed an average of three times longer than prerecorded videos.

Facebook is currently the fourth most valuable American company. Its stock price is based less upon its current revenues, which are much lower than those of other companies with similar valuations, than upon expectations about revenues it will one day be able to earn. That future revenue depends on reselling to advertisers the attention of 1.7 billion global users, who currently spend an average of fifty minutes a day on Facebook’s sites and apps.

Facebook promotes video, plays publisher-generated content up or down in relation to user-generated content, and tinkers continually with the algorithm that determines what appears on its News Feed; it does this not out of any inherent high- or low-mindedness, but in an effort to harvest an ever greater quantity of our time. If the written word happens to fall out of favor, or if journalism becomes economically unworkable as a…


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