Toward a critical theory of Facebook Live videos, from watermelon explosion to Chewbacca mom.

What Makes Facebook Live Videos So Mind-Blowingly Bad—With Glimmers of Transcendence

What Makes Facebook Live Videos So Mind-Blowingly Bad—With Glimmers of Transcendence

Arts, entertainment, and more.
May 31 2016 5:45 AM

What Makes Facebook Live Videos So Mind-Blowingly Bad

With occasional glimmers of transcendence.

facebook live video.
Facebook has made live video, by virtue of it appearing on Facebook, entirely mainstream.

Photo illustration by Sofya Levina. Screenshots via BuzzFeed, NYCGOV, and Tech Insider

Rubber bands, in sufficient numbers, act on a watermelon like a murderous corset, gripping the firm, green flesh and squeezing until an unnatural waistline appears. This past April, millions of people had occasion to become acquainted with rubber band–induced watermelon waist when BuzzFeed posted a live video on Facebook in which two employees placed rubber bands around a watermelon until it exploded. The rubber band appliers, overdressed in white hazmat suits—it was a watermelon, not a pustulated alien spore—counted out the rubber bands, ever more skittishly, until after 45 minutes and nearly 700 rubber bands, as the number of viewers edged up to 800,000, the watermelon burst. The video (or some part of it) has since been watched 10 million times.

Willa Paskin Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

In the months before the watermelon, Facebook had announced that it would be emphasizing live videos, a capability it rolled out to all of its users in December. On smart phones, where users would go to post a status update, they could now select “live video” and immediately begin broadcasting themselves. In March, Facebook tweaked its algorithm to promote live videos. In April, it updated its mobile app to showcase them. It has also paid celebrities and various media outlets, BuzzFeed and the New York Times among them, to create live content. The watermelon experiment seemed like an auspicious coming-out party for Facebook Live. “We blew up a watermelon and everyone lost their freaking minds,” is how BuzzFeed put it in one post, and if you don’t quibble about the meaning of “everyone,” they had a point.

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In the weeks since the watermelon, Facebook Live has been everywhere—except for my Facebook newsfeed, which, anecdotally, seems to be a common omission. The New York Times broadcast a pitch meeting. BuzzFeed tried (and failed) to broadcast an interview with President Obama. The New York Post had some of its reporters try to eat three pounds of cheese. Gawker had one of its editors explain all of the open tabs on his browser. The NYPD crushed dirt bikes with a bulldozer. A guy accidentally streamed his wife giving birth. Last week, Facebook Live had its biggest hit yet, when a video of a woman getting the giggles while trying on a Chewbacca mask went viral. (It now has upward of 140 million views.)

What Facebook Live offers users isn’t new; it’s just new to Facebook. People can already share video on YouTube, Snapchat, Vine, and Facebook-owned Instagram, among other platforms. People can also already share live video, whether using more one-on-one services like Skype or Facetime, Twitter live-stream apps like Meerkat and Periscope, video game hub Twitch, more event-focused services like Livestream and Ustream, and a host of less savory-seeming live-streaming sites like Chatroulette and YouNow, which also integrate comments and chat. What’s different about Facebook Live is its scope. Facebook has made live video, by virtue of it appearing on Facebook, entirely mainstream, while giving Facebook itself an entrée into live events. If live video used to be something other people did—lonely teenagers, far-flung grandparents, masturbators, the chronically bored—it is now something people on Facebook do, which is to say, theoretically: everyone.

It is also something that media companies currently seem to feel they have to do (Slate among them). Facebook has actively encouraged media companies, even the ones it’s not paying, to play around with Facebook Live. Media companies, generally speaking, do not say no to Facebook, giver of traffic, and they certainly don’t say no when Facebook is trying out something that could, theoretically, be good for branding. (Even though Facebook Live videos live on Facebook.) Thus far, Facebook Live has primarily been a frantic arena in which media companies throw overly long, floppy videos at the wall, to see if any might stick.

Where Vine has fetishized brevity and Snapchat ephemerality, Facebook Live encourages video-creators to go long, more than five minutes and up to 90, and caches its videos. Facebook’s logic is that the longer a clip is, the more time people have to find it while it is still happening. (i.e. The longer Facebook’s newsfeed, which does not update with the speed or transparency of Twitter, has to alert users.) If this is great for boosting the numbers of people watching and engaging with live video—Facebook has touted the fact that comments are eight times more frequent on live than regular video—it is horrible for rewatching. The video of the NYPD crushing dirt bikes, for example, starts with 29 minutes of nothing happening. The formal innovations of Facebook Live are length and durability, along with the “live” aspect. And yet so far very few Facebook Live videos have figured out how to capitalize on any of this at all.

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BuzzFeed’s watermelon video is a high point for the form. (Even that one is difficult to rewatch; I assume most people who have come to it since it was first broadcast skip to the end, to watch the explosion.) The video was spontaneous and improvisational, but had a narrative and an end point—much like sports, the ultimate live event. As inane as the premise was, it was also sticky: What would happen next? The rubber-band placers, aflutter with BuzzFeed esprit de corps, amped up the crowd and heightened the anticipation. By the end, they were almost flinching every time they placed a band, as though something more dramatic were about to happen than a mushroom cloud of watermelon guts. The video was also perfectly on brand for BuzzFeed: It offered viewers another ingenious way to waste time while perpetuating the sense that BuzzFeed is a playground and laboratory (those hazmat suits!) for madcap, inventive, and shameless millennials with bottomless team spirit.

Other Facebook Live attempts have been less successful. The New York Times posted a Facebook Live video of one of its staff editors going through slides she had found in trash bags on the street. You could see the nugget of a Times story here: an artsy New York City mystery. But Facebook Live is not conducive to things the Times values: rigor, reporting, conclusions. One of the pleasures of the form, it should be said, is the comic tension on display between the often-incredulous live stream of comments and the video itself. As the Times editor held up slides to her shaky phone, exclaiming on their beauty, a commenter remarked: “The real mystery is why you’re digging through New York garbage?”

In a more on-brand effort, the Times used Facebook Live to share a pitch meeting—one which Gawker persuasively argued was semi-staged. Letting it all hang out suits BuzzFeed more than it does the Times, a difference we can all be thankful for—except when the Times is trying to make larkish videos. (Along similar lines, Gawker’s Facebook Live video about one of its editor’s browser tabs was very Gawker: uncomfortable and visibly skeptical about playing along with an authority like Facebook, a reasonable position that sure dampens the vibe of their Facebook Live videos.)

One of the best Facebook Live videos yet is ClickHole’s “Whoa! Man Does 40 Celebrity Impressions in an Hour and a Half,” which perfectly skewers the format’s oppressive length. In it, a blond man in a sound booth does a Cheech Marin impression for a few seconds, and then pauses. His face goes blank. He stares at the camera. The pause goes on for nearly a minute. Finally, he does another impression, of Tommy Chong. This too is followed by minutes of complete, bored silence. He takes a sip of water. Finally, another impression. Then a pause. This goes on for the promised 90 minutes. Like all of ClickHole, it simultaneously lampoons and embodies the absurdities of internet content. And though it is a very good joke, it’s still impossible to sit through.

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Perhaps the biggest rejoinder to the length of these videos is the recent Chewbacca video, Facebook Live’s greatest hit thus far. It is only 4 minutes long. It came from a regular Facebook user, not a media company. And though it is a Facebook Live video, it went viral in the standard YouTube fashion: after the fact.

To get a sense of what regular people are doing on Facebook Live, you can go to the Facebook Live Map, a map of the world scattered with blue dots that each represent someone using the service. (Periscope uses a similar geolocation map.) It looks like a map you would see in a movie about the spread of a virulent plague: Facebook hopes this disease is contagious. (The map is essentially a home page for Facebook Live, which further illustrates just how poorly live video has yet been integrated into newsfeeds. Facebook is the company that supposedly killed home pages with personalized newsfeeds, and yet it has had to create a home page for its own product.) The map is mesmerizing, at scale. It’s fascinating to click around and see so many people, using so many languages, going about their lives. What does a suburban neighborhood in Yemen look like? Facebook Live can tell you.

But for all of the anthropological details to be gleaned from the map, the specific streams, often watched by one or two people, are reliably dull. Any activity that might be improved by killing time puttering around on Facebook is now an activity that can also be shared on Facebook. You see people driving around, sitting in class, watching their children play, getting a tattoo, doing yoga, driving around some more. Perhaps because it is Facebook, a not-entirely-public, but not-entirely-private space, Facebook Live videos don’t have that intimacy of Snapchat or live-streaming sites like YouNow, where people are so often broadcasting from their bedrooms, sharing things they might prefer their aunt didn’t see.

On the left side of the map is a list of the most-watched videos currently on Facebook Live. On a Monday morning, that might include 9,000 people watching a South Asian actress read through her comments, a couple thousand people watching a Time-hosted Game of Thrones recap conversation, a prayer circle, and a feed from the Yale graduation. On a Tuesday afternoon, a thousand people might be watching “public figures”—that’s Facebook’s term—like Sean Stephenson, a therapist and motivational speaker with brittle bone disease, or Tom Cassel, a video gamer also known as The Syndicate Project, who has 9.75 million subscribers to his YouTube channel and 2.4 million followers on Twitch. But the more common type of most-watched videos is either television or what feel like DVD extras from television. A thousand people watch The U.K.’s Channel 4 broadcast of the Prime Minister’s Question, the notoriously quippy weekly session when the PM answers questions from Parliament. Hundreds of people watch a Miami Dolphins press conference, or a stream of Greta Van Susteren in her office, or a live feed of a house fire shared by a local Fox affiliate in Detroit. The most-watched videos on the Facebook Live map have the feel of public access TV: extremely unprofessional professional television.

As it exists now, Facebook Live has two tiers of content: the little-watched stuff created by regular people who are broadcasting to friends who can’t see them through the algorithm, with occasional viral breakouts, and media companies and personalities who are providing free content to Facebook Live because Facebook has all the traffic, with occasional viral breakouts. Facebook is big and powerful enough that Facebook Live will continue for as long as Facebook would like. That doesn’t mean we’ll ever get the hang of it.