Passive consumption is Facebook’s latest boogeyman. Last month, in a surprising blog post about how its own social-media platform can make users feel worse, Facebook (negatively) compared “passively scroll[ing] through posts” to “watching TV.” Claiming that the fault lies not in how much people spend time on Facebook but how well (thus implicitly deflecting blame from the site to users), the company announced it would institute changes—since implemented—to encourage more interaction with friends and family. That aim extends to Facebook Watch, the site’s 5-month-old, low-key-popular video platform, which represents Facebook’s bid to challenge Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and soon Apple for streaming dominance. Right now, Watch has more than two dozen original shows and countless videos uploaded by third parties like NPR, the New York Times, and Slate. In the pipeline are a drama produced by Kerry Washington and an intergenerational talk show whose co-hosts include Jada Pinkett Smith and her daughter Willow Smith. But Facebook Watch’s advent also suggests an attempt to transform the way we watch TV now, one that borrows qualities from YouTube and Twitter to maximize conversations about the content that it hosts—all on top of your Facebook feed.
Which sounds audacious. Why then, so far, is Facebook Watch such an ungainly mess?
It starts with Watch’s chief insight and premise that discussion ought to be at the center of how we view and discover TV programs. For starters, that would cut out some of the middlemen. Arts criticism has suffered a tumble in stature in the internet age, with review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes diminishing individual voices, a deluge of bloggers (smart and dumb) fighting to be read, and the chances of a decent livelihood evaluating movies and TV shows diminishing by the day. But excitement about television, especially, is still something of a top-down enterprise: Critics receive advance copies of new programs, praise the ones we like best, and get the ball rolling on which shows are worth checking out. It’s an imperfect system, but it’s the one we’ve got—until Facebook figures out how to reverse-engineer a show everyone’s talking about, starting, it seems, with the forum. (The professional content on Facebook Watch isn’t to be confused with everyday users’ videos on Facebook Live and in the news feed’s video player.)
Most networks and streaming sites try to make shows that will appeal to critics and audiences and hope those programs will spread via word of mouth, i.e., mostly viewers discussing them online. If I watch a program I like, I recommend it to a friend, that friend (hopefully) figures out how to watch it, and eventually tunes in. Facebook Watch facilitates recommendations by getting rid of those two middle steps. A fan of, say, Loosely Exactly Nicole—a youth-aimed comedy that Watch resurrected after a cancellation by MTV following a low-rated first season—can simply send the pilot to a friend over Facebook Instant Messenger, post it on their own page, or post it on a friend’s. Given Facebook’s near ubiquity, no other TV or video platform is better positioned to grow via the path of least resistance, since any Facebook Watch video will only be a couple of clicks away. TV recs can hardly be more direct.
The same goes for discussing those shows. Unlike Netflix’s clean video-centric interface, Facebook Watch subtly but persistently promotes commenting. When you click on a Watch episode, two panels appear on your desktop browser tab. On the left is the actual video; on the right, a description of the episode with options for liking, commenting, and sharing the video—just like with any status update. Scroll down, and you can either browse other videos or read the comments about the episode. Skimming through those comments is akin to watching a show while live-tweeting—though, at least for now, much duller. (The existing comments evince such unqualified enthusiasm that they feel cherry-picked by the site.) Like most of Facebook, the right panel is black text on a white background. At least for Loosely Exactly Nicole, which is lit around the same level as Girls or Insecure (i.e., dimmer than the typical network sitcom), the color contrast between the show’s dingily lit living room and the bright white to the right meant that my eye kept being drawn to the comments. (There is a full-screen option, but the first screen that Facebook takes you to—and thus encourages—is the bisected noise-friendly one.) Who needs critical approval when hundreds of comments praise each episode of the show? At the very least, it’ll be an interesting experiment to see if the quantity of comments can be as influential as their quality.
But Watch does have a few obstacles—some self-imposed, some circumstantial—if it’s indeed meant to dominate the virtual water cooler. First, it’s got to give people something to talk about. Loosely Exactly Nicole is pretty funny in an acerbic, queer-friendly, Difficult People sort of way, but the half-dozen episodes I saw weren’t exactly thinkpiece—or even extended-status-update—material. (Disclosure: I worked for MTV News when the sitcom’s first season aired on MTV.) And if Facebook Watch actually wants people to watch its original programming, well, I just wouldn’t believe it. At the moment, only the top carousel is devoted to original series; the interface currently tends to obscure, rather than highlight, those shows. All the carousels below offer third-party content. Most egregiously for a video platform, Facebook Instant Messenger windows kept popping up over Nicole and her friends, a sign that Facebook’s desires to be everything for everyone is leading to its features crowding one another out. As for Watch’s cluttered, overlapping interface—has the social giant forgotten why it beat Myspace in the first place?
After social media’s fake-news fiascos, it makes sense that Facebook would want users to focus away from global politics toward interests with lower stakes like pop culture, infotainment, and cute animal videos. But you’d have to be willfully naive to think that discussion alone will make Facebook a happier place to waste time. “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,” said Mark Zuckerberg, who’s apparently never been part of any fandom or read the many news stories about how quickly rabid stan armies have ravaged parts of Twitter, Reddit, celebrity apps, and probably any other platform where humans disagree with one another with unnecessary ferocity. In fact, the more time I spend on social media, the more I’m convinced that only our spouses are meant to know our thoughts about every single thing we encounter—and even then, we should probably spare our loved ones from time to time. Sometimes, passive consumption is the only way to guarantee we’ll still have some friends left by the end of a show.