Future Tense

Facebook Crushed Everyone’s “Pivot to Video”—Except Its Own

How the shift from “passive” consumption to “meaningful interactions” could boost Facebook Live and Facebook Watch.

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images.

Facebook’s big news feed changes are bad news for video publishers—unless they’re using one of Facebook’s new favorite video platforms.

The company’s shift from “passive” consumption to “meaningful interaction,” announced last week, induced panic among media companies that have come to rely heavily on Facebook to reach their audiences. (There could also be some silver linings.) In particular, it has been widely construed as a death knell for publishers that made the infamous “pivot to video”—turning from written articles to creating videos that were meant to be viewed and shared in the news feed. That they did this largely on Facebook’s own advice makes the latest changes feel to some like a betrayal, although no one can say they weren’t warned.

There will be less video,” Facebook’s head of news feed, Adam Mosseri, confirmed in a Saturday interview with Wired. He explained that watching video is “a passive experience” that provokes “less conversation” than other types of posts.

You might think this shift would also threaten two high-profile video platforms that Facebook itself has been actively pushing: Facebook Watch, its nascent hub for TV-like video “shows,” and Facebook Live, its livestreaming tool. But it seems you would be wrong. The company told me that it has found both Watch and Live to be particularly effective in encouraging comments and discussion among viewers—the very signals that Facebook’s news feed algorithm will now be emphasizing.

In fact, Mosseri used Facebook Live as Exhibit A in the company’s Jan. 11 blog post explaining the types of content that the changes are meant to encourage. He wrote:

Page posts that generate conversation between people will show higher in News Feed. For example, live videos often lead to discussion among viewers on Facebook—in fact, live videos on average get six times as many interactions as regular videos.

In other words, the more the news feed emphasizes discussion over passive viewership, the more live videos we can expect to see there—especially those shared or commented on by friends and family. (Facebook reportedly stopped paying publishers to produce Facebook Live videos in December 2017.)

This dovetails with CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s comments on Facebook’s last earnings call, which presaged the social network’s new focus on time well spent. “Over the next three years, the biggest trend in our products will be the growth of video,” Zuckerberg said in November 2017. He used Watch as an example of the type of video platform that should thrive under the new order, because it encourages a show’s fans to connect with one another and discuss each episode. “We’ve found that communities formed around video like TV shows or sports create a greater sense of belonging than many other kinds of communities,” he added.

Despite some early setbacks, the company appears to be redoubling its Watch push in the wake of the algorithm changes. On Wednesday, it began testing a new feature called “Watch Party” that lets Facebook groups organize virtual screenings of videos, which they can then discuss among themselves in real time. “As we think about video on Facebook, we’re focused on creating experiences that bring people closer together and inspire human connection instead of passive consumption,” explained the company’s VP of product, Fidji Simo.

Like Facebook’s live videos, Watch videos can be found in a separate tab from the main news feed, which might seem to insulate them from changes to the algorithm. But media companies interviewed by Digiday reported that most viewing happens inside the news feed, as users who like a show then find its episodes cropping up among posts from their friends and families. Facebook has also been aggressive in its use of notifications to promote both Live and Watch, such as notifying you whenever a friend comments on a show from a Watch page you’re following.

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed to me that Watch and Live could benefit, on the whole, from the company’s new focus. The spokesperson cautioned, however, that it’s impossible to predict how the algorithm will affect any particular page, show, or broadcast. Some could wither while others flourish, depending on the types of interaction they encourage.

A cynic might wonder whether boosting its own pet video projects might have been a hidden motivation for Facebook’s latest news feed changes. That would be rather devious if it were the case, as Facebook has gone out of its way to frame the move in terms of users’ well-being, rather than its own business interests. It seems like a stretch, however: The news feed changes are global and should have sweeping impacts on Facebook’s signature product, whereas Live and Watch are relative fledglings whose futures are uncertain (and Watch is U.S.-only at this point).

Still, if Zuckerberg is right that video is Facebook’s future, then an algorithm change that prioritizes Live and Watch over other platforms could go a long way toward shaping what we watch and how—and who benefits. One obstacle: convincing media partners that the “pivot to Watch” will work out better for them than the last go ’round.