This week, Facebook began rolling out a new hub for online video, called Watch. The feature, which will show up as a separate tab from the news feed in the Facebook app, will encourage users to subscribe to their favorite shows, see what their friends are watching, and find new shows that might match their interests.
The feature drew immediate comparisons to Google’s YouTube, and it does look awfully familiar. BuzzFeed’s Alex Kantrowitz described it as “more similar to YouTube than any other major video platform in existence today.” As with YouTube, there will be some shows produced professionally by corporate partners—including one live MLB game per week—but the company says the focus will be on videos uploaded by Facebook users. That makes it quite different from the likes of Netflix and fits Facebook’s self-conception as a platform rather than a media company.
Facebook’s video products already challenge YouTube in some respects. The news feed algorithm helps individual videos go viral on a scale that is harder for YouTube videos to achieve. While YouTube creators were irked early on by Facebook’s permissive attitude toward “freebooting,” the company has taken steps to address their concerns and even lure them away. Watch should make Facebook more viable as a destination for video, as opposed to just a place where people encounter video interspersed with news stories and updates from their friends.
Facebook’s video platform has at least one natural advantage over YouTube: the social network’s ability to connect you with friends and others who are watching the same thing. In a post announcing Watch, CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote: “Watching a show doesn't have to be passive. It can be a chance to share an experience and bring people together who care about the same things.” Banal as that sounds, he might well be right that the ability to see what your friends are watching, and to form social groups around certain shows, will be Watch’s main selling point.
Still, it’s hard to imagine Watch posing a serious threat to YouTube anytime soon. The history of social media teaches us that people generally spend most of their time in an app’s main feed, with relatively few taking the trouble to regularly toggle to different tabs. (Snapchat may be helping to change that, at least for younger users.) Getting people to think “Facebook” instead of “YouTube” when they want to watch videos will take a lot of work.
But there’s another company that should be very worried about Watch: Twitter. The company has struggled to compete for advertising money with Google and Facebook, because it can’t match the scale of either their audience or their data. It has also had a hard time finding ad formats that work well on its platform, where people are constantly scanning and scrolling.
Throughout its difficulties, one of Twitter’s few big selling points to advertisers has been its ability to connect them with people who are watching and discussing a specific show or video in real time . It has sought, in other words, to become the dominant “second screen” where people interact around what they’re watching on TV. Increasingly, it’s turning to live video—including professional sports broadcasts—to unify the second screen with the original content.
Viewed through this lens, Watch isn’t just a YouTube rival. It’s Facebook’s answer to Twitter’s big bet on the future. And while Facebook isn’t big enough to beat Google through sheer scale, it has already shown it can do just that to smaller rivals, including Twitter. Its live video platform, Facebook Live, was viewed by many as a shameless ripoff of Twitter’s Periscope when it launched. But it quickly gained traction, because Facebook simply has far more users, giving it a broader base of both video creators and viewers.
Facebook Watch may look a lot more like YouTube than it looks like Twitter. But when it comes to the competition for online advertising money, it represents a bigger blow to Twitter’s ambitions than it does to Google’s. Twitter helped to pioneer the follower model, the hashtag, real-time public chat, and live video—all of which Facebook has since copied. Now Facebook wants to usurp Twitter’s role as a hub for online socialization around video and TV. Its content today may be uploaded mostly by amateur users, but if the model works, it won’t hesitate to partner with more and more professional producers of video content.
For TV fans who use Facebook but not Twitter, that’s great news. For Twitter—not so much.