[This post originally appeared in HBR Blogs]
Facebook is Live. Will it get livelier?
This week, Facebook rolled out its newest product, Facebook Live. Actually, “tool” is probably a better word. What it does is allow anybody to stream a video from their smartphone and have it broadcast live. The result is then stored, like any other post, in your newsfeed. As an example, here is what I did the other day.
As ever, it is another way you can engage socially. But this time around Facebook may look like it is not doing anything innovative — especially to the YouTube generation.
It was YouTube, of course, that showed people like to share videos. And we have seen Vine, Meerkat, and Periscope try various forms of video in the social media space. Today, you can’t have a calling platform without video — Skype and FaceTime being the foremost examples.
Even recruiters have gotten into the game. Toronto-based Kira pioneered the recorded video for recruiting, and chances are if you have applied to do an MBA recently you have used its platform. Vidoyen, another startup, takes a Quora-style question-and-answer approach, with videos used as answers. Given this proliferation of person-to-person video, it isn’t surprising that Facebook wanted to join the party. And there is, after all, something compelling about video as a medium, replicating more of the full experience of communication, including facial cues and other language. Perhaps that’s why every vision we have ever had of the future uses it. (Did those calls in Star Wars really have to be holograms?)
However, what do we imagine is the use case for Facebook’s version? Meerkat and Periscope have found a home off the back of Twitter, but it is all about serendipity. Once someone is broadcasting there, their output is not stored for future consumption. You have to experience it in the moment. That can generate a unique experience if you happen to catch what your favorite celebrity is doing just now.
Cartoonist Scott Adams, in moments where he is apparently bored, flips on Periscope to ask whomever is there for ideas for future Dilbert comics. It works because it engages. That’s the benefit. The cost is that it isn’t stored, so your audience is whoever happens to be around. And there is another cost: Because it is fleeting, it obtains an unfair priority for attention, like the person who calls to ask a store clerk a question when there is a line of people waiting to be helped at the counter.
Facebook Live, too, can have that effect, but because the video will be there later on, there isn’t a drive to jump right in. That is both good and bad, but if some broadcaster wants to grab attention, this is an argument in favor of Periscope.
Facebook Live is also another way that Facebook is cutting YouTube and other video hosts out of the equation. Facebook had already made it possible (and indeed preferable, if you want to get the most views on the platform) to upload videos directly to Facebook. In that regard, this is yet another way the company is chipping away at Google in the war for attention and eyeballs to put in front of advertisers.
In the end, I think Facebook Live demonstrates three things.
First, Facebook is signaling that it won’t be left behind in terms of tools that may be obvious to have but that take a significant degree of engineering capability to roll out at scale. Live video wasn’t switched on overnight.
Second, it is far from clear that Facebook puts out tools like this by doing a detailed cost-benefit analysis. As I have suggested, it is not clear how much this adds in value for Facebook consumers. This is a luxury that Facebook can afford. As a scholar of innovation, I am always happy to see experiments like it. But will we all look back and remember the first time someone showed us a Facebook Live video before it became a huge phenomenon? I’m not sure. After all, even Donald Trump hasn’t graced us with pithy Periscope videos yet.
Finally, there is a sense in which Facebook is sending signals to other competitors that it will match features aggressively. Facebook did this previously with photo sharing. It has done this with messaging. And now it is turning to video. From a consumer’s perspective, the message is that Facebook won’t leave you behind. From a competitor’s, it’s that to gain significant traction you will have to innovate far more radically.