For over a decade, YouTube has been the king of online video. If you want to watch video content, then it is the only place that matters. Facebook? Maybe if you want send a shaky video of your kid to your parents. Vimeo? Only pretentious film weirdos use that even though it presents videos in functionally the same way as Google’s behemoth.
But all of this could be about to change as Facebook has launched Watch - a new tab in the Facebook app for watching video - and it appears to signal a move by the company to take video even more seriously. Though uploading videos to Watch will only be available to a handful of creators at first, the intention is to eventually open up video to all - and this means that Facebook is parking its tanks on YouTube’s lawn.
So who will this fight? In my view, this is the most serious threat to YouTube’s hegemony yet - and if Facebook is lucky, it could kill YouTube altogether and carve out yet another slice of the web for Mark Zuckerberg to dominate. Here’s why.
1. The Audience is Already on Facebook
Facebook, whether we like it or not, is pretty much a core part of all of our lives now. If you quit Facebook, you don’t have a social life. By connecting us with our friends, Facebook has created effectively an operating system for real life. It is the platform on which we organise our lives.
This is why Facebook is so attractive to companies, brands and other people who want to get their stuff right up in our faces - and why going all-in on video could be so potent.
The problem is perhaps better seen from YouTube’s perspective. Though YouTube is an incredibly useful place to host videos, if you want to share them with friends most of the time you’ll paste the URL into Facebook (or Messenger, or WhatsApp, which are also owned by Facebook). Since Google Plus failed to take off, Google doesn’t have an intrinsic knowledge of who our friends are - which makes watching videos on YouTube a relatively lonely experience.
For media producers the value is obvious: you don’t need to persuade the user to click to another site, or to switch to another app, as they’re already where you need them to be. Simply show them the video within Facebook, and you’ll engage them instantly. Similarly, though pretty much every media project will have a Facebook fan page, these are ultimately vehicles to push the user into, say, watching a YouTube video or firing up Netflix.
What’s also cool about Watch is that Facebook is ripping off YouTube’s subscribe functionality - so if there’s a show you like, you can follow it and watch it like a boxset on Netflix, and get notifications when new episodes arrive. It also appears that Facebook will remember which videos you’ve already seen, and will support pause and resume functionality.
So with Watch, creators will be able both keep fans updated, and host their shows right there on Facebook, whether they are a bedroom vlogger or a multi-million dollar HBO-style affair.
2. Social Sharing is Better Than Clever Algorithms
We’ve all fallen down a YouTube rabbit hole, where one video leads to another… and then another… and then another… but the algorithm does have its flaws. Just because you watch one video showing you how to fix your router doesn’t mean that you want every video recommendation for the next week to be videos about how to fix other routers. And in any case, this sort of ultra-customisation makes it hard to see beyond your own specific purview.
So what about Facebook Watch? Unlike Google, Facebook has a complete database of all of your friends, and it can use it to its advantage. So it can get the best of both worlds.
With Watch, expect to see a heavy emphasis on recommending videos that your friends are also watching. It will mean that you’ll see stuff that you’re also interested in (hence why they’re your friends) as well as potentially more leftfield recommendations. There’s also the simple fact that a recommendation from someone you know and trust is more compelling than a faceless algorithm. If your friend likes a show, then you’ll be more willing to give it a go. And this could mean more time spent watching video on Facebook.
A second order consequence of being embedded in your social circle is that you’ll also more meaningfully engage with videos. Who wants to get down in the muck in the YouTube comments, when you could instead chat with only your friends about the show in the comments?
Oh, and if you still think YouTube will have an algorithmic advantage? Don’t forget you’ve spent the last decade of your life also telling Facebook about which TV shows you like and dislike.
3. It Could Sort Out the Unholy Mess That is Facebook’s Existing Video Setup
Obviously Facebook has supported video for a long time and you could be forgiven for asking “Why hasn’t it taken down YouTube already if it’s so great?”.
The reason, I think, is because video consumption on Facebook as it currently exists is a mess. Videos can be posted to news feeds by users or companies, but they’ll get lost in the shuffle: even though they technically have a permalink, they still feel very transient, because of how the news feed will (from the user’s perspective) randomly choose whether to include it or not.
Similarly, notifications are currently scattershot: you’ll get a notification if someone goes live, and then maybe if the algorithm decides to tell you about anything else. And once you’ve viewed the notification, it just falls down the list with every other comment, like and post on your Facebook feed.
Watch looks set to sort this mess out, and make viewing a show much more bearable. They’ll be a dedicated place to access videos. Shows will be listed sequentially and can be bookmarked so you can save them when you see them on your phone and watch later on your computer, say. Just like how you can always hit the “subscriptions” button on YouTube and see what you’ve got left to watch.
Videos will presumably also have a proper permalink - a URL unencumbered by your own personal comments and the like, that you’ll feel able to post in other places or send to people, confident that the link will send them to the right place.
4. The News Feed Can be Gamed to Force People to Use it
For a tech company, it isn’t just about building a cool product that you need to worry about - it’s about how to encourage people to use it. Especially if it is something that relies on “network effects”, like a social network or video sharing website, where the more users, the better the product will be.
If you can’t get people on board, then you end up with a situation like Google Plus, where after the initial rush everyone forgot about it, and the only remaining users were a handful of nerds.
So how can Facebook avoid this potential pitfall? Luckily, Facebook holds sway over a part of our lives that we can’t live without: the Facebook news feed. By subtly tweaking the algorithm it uses to pick stories, it could favour videos on its new Watch platform, and easily drive engagement and use without anyone really having to do anything deliberate. Before you even realise it, using Watch rather than YouTube will have become a regular part of your life.
Facebook has of course tried this before, with success: the company has previously tinkered with the algorithm to favour natively uploaded videos (i.e. videos uploaded directly to FB) rather than YouTube links, or even written content. So now social media managers the world over know to upload natively to Facebook instead of YouTube. And for users, they just might notice that posting a video gets them more attention than a simple status update.
So once Watch launches, expect to see it all over your feed. And unlike Google Plus, you won’t be able to hide from it.
5. The Feedback Loop Will Give Facebook Even More Power
Ultimately, the goal of Watch is for Facebook to get itself into a virtuous circle: watching video on Facebook means more time spent on Facebook, which means Facebook learns more about you, which means better video recommendations, which means more time spent on Facebook. and so on, forever.
The good news for Facebook then is that is in an extremely strong position to make this happen - as described above. And this will mean that Facebook - already one of the world’s most powerful companies - will become even bigger, and even more powerful.
Given how intrinsic Facebook is to our lives (yes, I know there’s going to be a couple of refuseniks in the comments, but there isn’t very many of you left) we’ll have no choice whether or not we use its new service. This means that eventually Facebook will become even more important to us - it’s not just where our friends are, but where our favourite shows are too! It will also mean that Facebook will have even more weight when, say, negotiating for sports streaming rights: Perhaps the sheer weight for Facebook’s reach could mean, for example, that Major League Baseball (one of the launch partners) starts streaming exclusively on FB, rather than on other platforms too. Musicians will realise that their new videos don’t need to be on YouTube, but on Facebook, as fans will share them more widely. Zoella will inevitably start vlogging on Facebook instead, because that’s where her fans hang out now. The makers of the next House of Cards or Stranger Things might realise that if they really want to reach a big audience, they’d be better placed premiering the show on the same place your aunt shares racist memes.
And what will that mean for YouTube? Perhaps one day in the not too distant future, you might find yourself switching off.