Future Tense

In Defense of Autoplay

Online videos are getting less annoying. Quietly.

Twitter autoplay video
Obnoxious, or obnoxiously cute?

Still courtesy of Twitter

For years the online economy ran largely on banner ads—those flashy, often ugly, typically rectangular, embedded images that surround the content you actually want to see. Mercifully, banner ads are in decline, due less to their ugliness than their inefficacy: Readers quickly learned to ignore them.

In their place, new forms of advertising have sprung up, engendering backlashes of their own. Some, like pop-up ads, are intrusive. Others, like the “native” ads designed to resemble articles, can be deceptive. Perhaps least popular of all is the autoplay video, which is enjoying a recent surge in popularity with advertisers and the websites and mobile apps that depend on them. It would seem a strong contender to usurp the banner ad’s title as the most viscerally annoying feature of the modern Internet.

The worst autoplay videos plead loudly and distractingly for your attention, like a kid in class who jumps out of his seat to blurt the answer rather than waiting to be called on. The better ones—which by default play without sound—gesture frantically yet silently, like an agitated mime.

It should not surprise Twitter, then, that its cheery adoption of autoplay videos on Tuesday—“Introducing a more seamless video experience with autoplay”—was greeted with something less than universal enthusiasm.

“Today, it’s become even easier to enjoy video on Twitter,” the company chirped in its blog post. “Now native videos, Vines and GIFs will begin to play back automatically.” Twitter even tried to pitch autoplay as a welcome convenience for users. “It used to be that watching a video on Twitter required several taps,” the company wrote. “So when something was unfolding in real time, be it an NBA finals game, your favorite TV show or breaking news, that extra effort meant you could miss something that you care about.”

Twitter’s users can be forgiven if their responses were lacking in gratitude.

The cynics are right to see this as a move aimed more at pleasing advertisers than users. Ads won’t be the only videos that autoplay in your feed, of course, but they’re the ones engineered to bring Twitter the revenue boost its shareholders so crave. (Facebook introduced autoplay videos last year, and its fortunes have surged.) 

Before you reach for the opt-out setting, however—and don’t worry, I’ll tell you how to find it in a moment—it’s worth considering the ways in which the new crop of autoplay videos has improved on those that came before. They’re now less annoying than many other forms of online advertising, and may even be preferable to the leading alternatives. That’s right: Autoplay videos aren’t nearly as nefarious as you think. At least, they don’t have to be, when executed thoughtfully.

If “autoplay” has become synonymous with “obnoxious,” it’s largely the fault of those primitive autoplay ads that blare sound at you from who knows what tab and who knows where on the page. They’re so intrusive and irritating that most browsers now take steps to counteract them, like the little speaker icon in Chrome that calls attention to the offending tab so you can close it. (Apple just added a similar feature to its Safari browser.) You’re right to despise and shun them.

Thankfully, Facebook found a better way. Reportedly inspired by the newspapers in the Harry Potter movies, Facebook came up with a brand of autoplay video that leaps to life as you scroll past it and retreats into stillness the moment you move on. Crucially, Facebook’s videos play silently unless you click or tap to turn the sound on. Twitter’s will do the same when you either tap or rotate your phone to landscape mode.

This new brand of autoplay video isn’t just superior to its predecessors. In many ways, it’s actually an upgrade over traditional online videos that don’t play until you click on them. No, seriously. Hear me out!

Opt in sounds nice, but non-autoplay videos tend to come with a price: the pre-roll ad. Click that little “play” button almost anywhere on the Web, including YouTube, and there’s a good chance you’ll be hit with a 30-second or minutelong ad before you’re allowed to watch the video you wanted to watch. Knowing that most people will skip past such videos altogether, websites feel compelled to heavily monetize the minority that clicks on them, often testing the limits of users’ patience in pursuit of ad revenue. And so it is that we all waste little chunks of our lives staring at counters that tick off the seconds until we’re allowed to skip ahead. (Yes, I’m aware that Slate’s videos are among those that often come with pre-roll ads.)

Facebook’s success with autoplay videos suggests that there’s a better way. In your Facebook feed, you have to contend with ads that play on their own, but you’ll be rewarded with lots of other videos that aren’t ads—and you won’t be blindsided with a pre-roll spot when you try to watch them. There may still be some pre-roll ads on Twitter, but at least with autoplay what you see is what you get. There’s something more honest about that experience as compared with, say, a non-autoplay video that displays a still screenshot of a LeBron James dunk, yet morphs into a 30-second Bank of America commercial the moment you tap it.

Twitter and Facebook are also addressing another common problem with autoplay ads: their propensity to hog your cellular data. The same settings panel that allows you to opt out of autoplay will give you a third option: to allow autoplay only when you’re connected to Wi-Fi.

Ultimately, the shift to silent, automagical videos that play only when you’re looking at them could benefit both advertisers and readers. Ideally, advertisers will spend more time crafting videos that compel rather than annoy, knowing that their audience is not captive. And Internet users will spend less time being forced to watch (or worse, listen to) ads they never asked for.

But as promised, if you’re unconvinced, you can find detailed instructions for opting out of autoplay ads on Twitter right here. Facebook’s, while we’re at it, are here. Enjoy your static social media feeds, friends. I’ll be over here reading my Daily Prophet.