Can Someone Please Explain Why Social Networks are Pushing Live Video So Hard?

I usually feel pretty in touch with the product decisions I see in my favorite apps, but I’m at a loss on this one. Specifically, live video broadcasting has popped up in Facebook and Instagram in the last year, with push notifications being sent any time anyone you know goes live, and at the risk of coming off as a hater: I don’t really understand.

As an academic exercise, sure, I get it: tons of people have smartphones with video cameras, mobile networks are finally robust enough to handle broadcasting and streaming video, so if you can do it, why not push everyone to go Instagram or Facebook Live? But in practice, the experience as a viewer doesn’t make any sense to me, and it feels like it violates a couple of the core tenets of what makes for a compelling social experience online.

To start, there are certainly cases where live video works and makes sense on social networks, but these feel pretty expected: it’s when either the content or the creator is very compelling.

Compelling Content
The first case, where the content is compelling, is where Twitter/Periscope’s live video offering really shines: it’s a constant stream of what’s happening right now, and seeing real-time video of an event (especially breaking news) is miles better than just reading someone’s narration. The power of live video during a revolution, a natural disaster, or anything unplanned can be tremendous, as it puts you right there in a way that text alone can’t. And perhaps most importantly, Twitter does a great job of bringing that content to us even if we’re not following the person who happens to be filming — chances are, they’re a person with <1000 followers who happens to be in that place at that time, but suddenly, they can be the eyes and ears on the ground for hundreds of thousands of people.

Compelling Creators
Outside of breaking news, live video can also work when the creator is the pull — when it’s a window into someone’s life and we’re really curious to get a peak. If Rihanna is going live, her biggest fans tune in both because they’ll get an insider’s view of her life and they’re a part of a community that enjoys that experience together, simultaneously, and they get to feel like they’re part of something.

So if these two use cases work well for broadcast live video, what’s the issue? The problem is that the overwhelming majority of live videos are not either of these, and instead are amateur creators broadcasting things that aren’t particularly exceptional — they exist in the bottom left corner, or what I’d call the ‘friends in line at brunch’ zone.

The Chasm Between Amateur and Professional Quality

Ricky Van Veen wrote a great piece a few years ago, and in it he referred to this idea (via Andy Weismann) that the best social products are ones that make you feel like you’re someone or something else. The exemplar of this is Instagram, which makes us feel more like a professional photographer than ever before, and the combination of filters and high quality smartphone cameras has narrowed the quality gap between amateur and professional quality significantly in the last five-plus years.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for live video. My friends are good at a lot of things, but a shaky iPhone camera with their on-the-fly narration can’t compare to video I’m accustomed to seeing: produced TV, movies, and even popular YouTube videos. The result is an experience on the consumption side that feels notably amateurish — imagine if Instagram was all blurry photos taken on flip phones from 2005, and that’s where I feel like we’re at with the disparity in live video today.

Consumption Friction in Live Video

While live video content itself typically doesn’t meet the bar for compelling content and the media itself is far from professional quality, the most damning thing for live video is the friction in consuming it.

Social networks have worked to make it as easy as possible to create content with the theory that the more content being created, the more time spent on-site/in-app consuming that content, and the richer the entire ecosystem is. However, there’s a crucial caveat here: the content needs to be easily consumable to make it worth the audience’s attention — or at least there has to be a good chance that the reward for consuming the content is greater than the effort expended in consuming it.

Most of this is naturally regulated by friction on the creation side. Consider an Instagram post: a friend takes a photo, checks out a couple filters, maybe toggles contrast and brightness, tags friends, thinks of a witty caption or some hashtags, and posts. It’s not overly laborious, but it could be a few minutes on the creation side. On the consumption side, you can take all that in in a second or two, and so in a minute, you can get a lot of content (from a lot of friends) quickly. Further, that content has a pretty good hit rate of being valuable to us: it’s typically photos of people we care about or what they’re seeing, and as per the point above on quality, it can look close to what many of us would equate to professional quality. This combination of being able to consume a lot of content from a variety of people quickly and a lot of that content being high quality makes Instagram photos so compelling.

With live video — especially from our friends — this is flipped on its head. It’s relatively easy for friends to start a live video: open the app, hit a button, and they’re sharing. It doesn’t have to go through the curation process, and so it’s not often especially compelling or high quality (low numerator, above). It also takes a long time to consume: typically live videos are at least a few minutes, if not longer, making the ratio above worse on both sides.

And time’s not the only aspect here creating friction: when we look at Instagram or Facebook feeds, it’s often a pull interaction (we open the app and decide to browse), or if it’s push, we can choose whether to engage in that moment or later. With live video, the consumption is comparatively much harder: it’s a push asking you to drop what you’re doing right now and tune in, and you’ll also need sound, so grab headphones and plug those in.

And once you’re tuned in to a friend’s video, they see you’re there (and you’re usually only one of a few people), making the experience the digital equivalent of showing up to a party where 1000 people were invited and only three showed up. And the party’s not especially fun, though now you’re stuck with this social obligation to not leave as soon as you arrive, as they’ll see whenever you do.

Live video certainly works in some situations, but the overwhelming experience I’ve had has not been those cases: it’s all in the bottom left of the ‘compelling content’ graph: the ‘friends in line at brunch’ zone. What’s frustrating too is that a lot of the content that’s being pushed to go live doesn’t need to be live, and Facebook realizes this by enabling content to be seen after the fact on their main app (even if they don’t for Instagram). This helps some with the friction of consumption, but still doesn’t make up for the time consumption takes, because unless you allow a piece of content to be edited or curated, that time isn’t decreasing.

Snapchat has taken a much better approach here by curating around events from multiple users, which helps increase how interesting the content is and also reduces the time of consumption and friction in that it’s a pull interaction: ironically, more akin to scrolling through an Instagram feed in delivering a positive user experience than the live video experience in Instagram or Facebook.

It’s admittedly a tough spot for Facebook, as live video may seem like a nice tool in their fight against Twitter to gain ground in owning real-time events. They started by only allowing it for celebrities and organizations, and it probably should be an option in the app if it’s important to them to be the place people go to broadcast a revolution. But even then, they’ll need to be significantly better at bringing content from outside our friend graph to our attention than they are today, and somehow be top of mind (over Twitter) as the spot for those people to go to broadcast.

Over time, social regulation may run its course and people shift towards only broadcasting exceptional events. But until then, the strong arm shove into pushing us all to go live and to spam us any time any of our friends do makes for an experience that doesn’t make a ton of sense to me.

Maybe it’s just me, maybe people love seeing their friends go live while waiting for brunch, and maybe the numbers are actually really compelling. It’s entirely possible that my experience here is very different than most people’s. What’s your experience been like with Facebook & Instagram Live? Do you watch or broadcast, or have opinions on it? Would love to hear your thoughts :)

Thanks to Dylan Keil, Chelsea Collyer, Anna James, Shane Mac & Nate Keller for reading drafts and offering feedback.

If you enjoyed reading this, please click “Recommend” below to share the story with others.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
charlie kubal

design products, make records, read/write/think. hip-hop, fitness, investing. product @roblox (via sway) cofounder @getchronos (💰 @life360 ) @ideo @stanfordgsb