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May 24, 2019
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Facebook Video

Facebook is secretly building LOL, a cringey teen meme hub

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How do you do, fellow kids? After Facebook Watch, Lasso, and IGTV failed to become hits with teens, the company has been quietly developing another youthful video product. Multiple sources confirm that Facebook has spent months building LOL, a special feed of funny videos and GIF-like clips. It’s divided into categories like “For You”, “Animals”, “Fails”, “Pranks” and more with content pulled from News Feed posts by top meme Pages on Facebook. LOL is currently in private beta with around 100 high school students who signed non-disclosure agreements with parental consent.

In response to TechCrunch’s questioning, Facebook confirmed it is privately testing LOL as a home for funny meme content with a very small number of US users. While those testers experience LOL as a replacement for their Watch tab, Facebook says there’s no plans to roll out LOL in Watch and the team is still finalizing whether it will become a separate feature in one of Facebook’s main app or a standalone app. Facebook declined to give a formal statement but told us the details we had were accurate.

With teens increasingly turning to ephemeral Stories for sharing and content consumption, Facebook is desperate to lure them back to its easily-monetizable feeds. Collecting the funniest News Feed posts and concentrating them in a dedicated place could appeal to kids seeking rapid-fire lightweight entertainment. LOL could also soak up some of the “low-quality” videos Facebook scrubbed out of the News Feed a year ago in hopes of decreasing zombie-like passive viewing that can hurt people’s well-being.

But our sources familiar with LOL’s design said it still feels “cringey”, like Facebook is futilely pretending to be young and hip. The content found in LOL is sometimes weeks old, so meme-obsessed teens may have seen it before. After years of parents overrunning Facebook, teens have grown skeptical of the app and many have fled for Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube. Parachuting into the memespehere may come off as inauthentic posing and Facebook could find it difficult to build a young fanbase for LOL.

In one of the recent designs for LOL, screenshots attained by TechCrunch show users are greeted with a carousel of themed collections called “Dailies” like “Look Mom No Hands” in a design reminiscent of Snapchat’s Discover section. Below that there’s a feed of algorithmically curated “For You” clips. Users can filter the LOL feed to show categories like “Wait For It”, “Savage”, “Classics”, “Gaming”, “Celebs”, “School”, and “Stand-Up”, or tap buttons atop the screen to see dedicated sub-feeds for these topics.

Once users open a Dailies collection or start scrolling the feed, it turns into a black-bordered theater mode that auto-advances after you finish a video clip for lean-back consumption. Facebook cuts each video clip up into sections several seconds long that users can fast-forward through with a tap like they’re watching a long Instagram Story. Below each piece of content is a set of special LOL reaction buttons for “Funny”, “Alright”, and “Not Funny”. There’s also a share button on each piece of content, plus users can upload videos or paste in a URL to submit videos to LOL.

Facebook has repeatedly failed to capture the hearts of teens with Snapchat clones like Poke and Slingshot, standalone apps like Lifestage, and acquisitions like TBH. Fears that it’s losing the demographic or that the shift driven by the youth from feeds to Stories that Facebook has less experience monetizing have caused massive drops in the company’s share price over the years. If Facebook can’t fill in this age gap, the next generation of younger users might sidestep the social network too, which could lead to huge downstream problems for growth and revenue.

That’s why Facebook won’t give up on teens, even despite embarrassing stumbles. Its new Tik Tok clone Lasso saw only 10,000 downloads in the first 12 days. Despite seeming like a ghost town, Facebook still updated it with a retweet-like Relasso and camera uploads today. Unlike the Tik Tok-dominated musical video space, though, the meme sharing universe is much more fragmented and there’s a better chance for Facebook to barge in.

Teens discover memes on Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, and exchange them in DMs. Beyond Imgur that encompasses lots of visual storytelling styles, there’s no super-popular dedicated meme discovery app. Facebook might seem out of touch, but the fact that it’s even trying to build a meme browser shows it recognizes the opportunity here. Sometimes our brains need a break and we want quick hits of entertainment that don’t require too much thought, commitment, or attention span. As Facebook tries to become more meaningful, LOL could save room for meaningless fun.

FB QVC? Facebook tries Live video shopping

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Want to run your own home shopping network? Facebook is now testing a Live video feature for merchants that lets them demo and describe their items for viewers. Customers can screenshot something they want to buy and use Messenger to send it to the seller, who can then request payment right through the chat app.

Facebook confirms the new shopping feature is currently in testing with a limited set of Pages in Thailand, which has been a testbed for shopping features. The option was first spotted by social media and reputation manager Jeff Higgins, and re-shared by Matt Navarra and Social Media Today. But now Facebook is confirming the test’s existence and providing additional details.

The company tells me it had heard feedback from the community in Thailand that Live video helped sellers demonstrate how items could be used or worn, and provided richer understanding than just using photos. Users also told Facebook that Live’s interactivity let customers instantly ask questions and get answers about product specifications and details. Facebook has looked to Thailand to test new commerce experiences like home rentals in Marketplace, as the country’s citizens were quick to prove how Facebook Groups could be used for peer-to-peer shopping. “Thailand is one of our most active Marketplace communities” says Mayank Yadav, Facebook Product Manager for Marketplace.

Now it’s running the Live shopping test, which allows Pages to notify fans that they’re going broadcasting to “showcase products and connect with your customers”. Merchants can take reservations and request payments through Messenger.  Facebook tells me it doesn’t currently have plans to add new partners or expand the feature. But some sellers without access are being invited to join a waitlist for the feature. It also says it’s working closely with its test partners to gather feedback and iterate on the live video shopping experience, which would seem to indicate it’s interested in opening the feature more widely if it performs well.

Facebook doesn’t take a cut of payments through Messenger, but the feature could still help earn the company money at a time when it’s seeking revenue streams beyond News Feed ads as it runs out of space their, Stories take over as the top media form, and user growth plateaus. Hooking people on video viewing helps Facebook show lucrative video ads. The more that Facebook can train users to buy and sell things on its app, the better the conversion rates will be for businesses, and the more they’ll be willing to spend on ads. Facebook could also convince sellers who broadcast Live to buy its new Marketplace ad units to promote their wares. And Facebook is happy to snatch any use case from the rest of the internet, whether it’s long-form video viewing or job applications or shopping to boost time on site and subsequent ad views.

Increasingly, Facebook is setting its sights on Craigslist, Etsy, and eBay. Those commerce platforms have failed to keep up with new technologies like video and lack the trust generated by Facebook’s real name policy and social graph. A few years ago, selling something online meant typing up a generic description and maybe uploading a photo. Soon it could mean starring in your own infomercial.

[Postcript: And a Facebook home shopping network could work perfectly on its new countertop smart display Portal.]

Facebook launches Watch Party for all, tests Live PiP commentating

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Facebook Watch has failed to capture viewers with its content, so it’s hoping to differentiate through the company’s core strength: social. Today Facebook fully launches Watch Party, its co-viewing feature where users can see and comment on the same video at the same time, to all profiles and Pages around the world.

Watch Party had previously launched in Groups and been in testing with other types of accounts. But now any profile or business can post a Watch party invite to sync up with other users and simultaneously view videos they’ve discovered on Facebook.

Watch’s content lineup is still lackluster compared to YouTube, Netflix, or even Snapchat Discover. CNBC reports Facebook is giving up on younger teens that are already ditching its app, and pivoting the video hub towards an older audience. Facebook is hoping a shared experience with users commenting together on clips could make Watch more appealing, but it’s a genuinely new behavior that may prove difficult to instill.

Facebook is also testing a few other tricks to breathe life into Watch. Pages and Groups will be able to schedule a Watch Party to draw more viewers, maybe by setting up a nightly gathering. Watch Parties with lots of activity will have their comments threaded so it’s easier to follow discussions.

And most interestingly, Facebook will try allowing Watch Party hosts to go Live picture-in-picture so they can commentate in real-time. This could be a hit with celebrities, as it will make users feel like they’re sitting beside them watching TV together. Basketball star Shaq will test out the Live Commentating feature through his Page tomorrow.

Watch Party’s statistics sound impressive, with 12 million started from Groups so far, 7X more daily Watch Parties in Groups per day since its launch in July, and 8X more commenting than on non-Live/synced videos. Pages are using it to let fans binge watch playlists of their old videos, replay their TV content for users in different time zones, and let fans ask each other and the hosts questions about recipes as they cook.

But given Facebook’s 2.2 billion total monthly users, billion-plus Groups users, and the fact that measuring growth in multiples is easy when you start with a low number, the feature clearly hasn’t reached the zeitgeist yet.

Perhaps the best hope for Watch and Watch Party is a feature TechCrunch broke the news on last week. Facebook is now internally testing a Watch Party-like co-viewing feature inside Messenger. Baking the option into chat might be a lot more natural, especially in group texts. 

Facebook has been desperately trying to shift video consumption behavior from passive zombie viewing to interactive and social engagement with fellow viewers. But that only works if the content is compelling.

Beyond a reboot of MTV’s The Real World, nothing on Watch truly stands out. Facebook may need to open up its wallet and pay big for more tent pole shows to pull in users and hope they get lost commenting on clips with friends and like-minds.

Facebook Messenger is building a “Watch Videos Together” feature

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Netflix and chill from afar? Facebook Messenger is now internally testing simultaneous co-viewing of videos. That means you and your favorite people could watch a synchronized video over group chat on your respective devices while discussing or joking about it. This “Watch Videos Together” feature could make you spend more time on Facebook Messenger while creating shared experiences that are more meaningful and positive for well-being than passively zombie-viewing videos solo. This new approach to Facebook’s Watch Party feature might feel more natural as part of messaging than through a feed, Groups, or Events post.

The feature was first spotted in Messenger’s codebase by Ananay Arora, the founder of deadline management app Timebound as well as a mobile investigator in the style of frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. The code he discovered describes Messenger allowing you to “tap to watch together now” and “chat about the same videos at the same time” with chat thread members receiving a notification that a co-viewing is starting. “Everyone in this chat can control the video and see who’s watching” the code explains.

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch that this is an “internal test” and that it doesn’t have any more to share right now. But other features originally discovered in Messenger’s code like contact syncing with Instagram have eventually received official launches.

Watch Party exists on Facebook but could be more popular as a chat feature

A fascinating question this co-viewing feature brings up is where users will find videos to watch. It might just let you punch in a URL from Facebook or share a video from there to Messenger. The app could put a new video browsing option into the message composer or Discover tab.  Or if it really wanted to get serious about chat-based co-viewing, Facebook could allow the feature to work with video partners, ideally YouTube.

Co-viewing of videos could also introduce a new revenue opportunity for Messenger. It might suggest sponsored videos, such as recent movie trailers. Or it could simply serve video ads between a queue of videos lined up for co-viewing. Facebook has recently been putting more pressure on its subsidiaries like Messenger and Instagram to monetize as News Feed ad revenue growth slows down due to plateauing users growth and limited News Feed ad space.

Other apps like YouTube’s Uptime (since shut down), and Facebook’s first president Sean Parker’s Airtime (never took off) have tried and failed to make co-watching a popular habit. The problem is that coordinating these synced-up experiences with friends can be troublesome. By baking simultaneous video viewing directing into Messenger, Facebook could make it as seamless as sharing a link.

Facebook buys Vidpresso’s team and tech to make video interactive

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Zombie-like passive consumption of static video is both unhealthy for viewers and undifferentiated for the tech giants that power it. That’s set Facebook on a mission to make video interactive, full of conversation with broadcasters and fellow viewers. It’s racing against Twitch, YouTube, Twitter and Snapchat to become where people watch together and don’t feel like asocial slugs afterward.

That’s why Facebook today told TechCrunch that it’s acqui-hired Vidpresso, buying its seven-person team and its technology but not the company itself. The six-year-old Utah startup works with TV broadcasters and content publishers to make their online videos more interactive with on-screen social media polling and comments, graphics and live broadcasting integrated with Facebook, YouTube, Periscope and more. The goal appears to be to equip independent social media creators with the same tools these traditional outlets use so they can make authentic but polished video for the Facebook platform.

Financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but it wouldn’t have taken a huge price for the deal to be a success for the startup. Vidpresso had only raised a $120,00 in seed capital from Y Combinator in 2014, plus some angel funding. By 2016, it was telling hiring prospects that it was profitable, but also that, “We will not be selling the company unless some insane whatsapp like thing happened. We’re building a forever biz, not a flip.” So either Vidpresso lowered its bar for an exit or Facebook made coming aboard worth its while.

For now, Vidpresso clients and partners like KTXL, Univision, BuzzFeed, Turner Sports, Nasdaq, TED, NBC and others will continue to be able to use its services. A Facebook spokesperson confirmed that customers will work with the Vidpresso team at Facebook, who are joining its offices in Menlo Park, London and LA. That means Facebook is at least temporarily becoming a provider of enterprise video services. But Facebook confirms it won’t charge Vidpresso clients, so they’ll be getting its services for free from now on. Whether Facebook eventually turns away old clients or stops integrating with competing video platforms like Twitch and YouTube remains to be seen. For now, it’s giving Vidpresso a much more dignified end than the sudden shutdowns some tech giants impose on their acquisitions.

We’ve had a lot of false starts along the way . . . We finally landed on helping create high quality broadcasts back on social media, but we still haven’t realized the full vision yet. That’s why we’re joining Facebook,” the Vidpresso team writes. “This gives us the best opportunity to accelerate our vision and offer a simple way for creators, publishers, and broadcasters to use social media in live video at a high quality level . . . By joining Facebook, we’ll be able to offer our tools to a much broader audience than just our A-list publishing partners. Eventually, it’ll allow us to put these tools in the hands of creators, so they can focus on their content, and have it look great, without spending lots of time or money to do so.”

Facebook already has some interactive video experiments out in the wild. For users, it recently rolled out its Watch Party tool for letting Groups view and chat about videos together. It’s also trying new games like Lip Sync Live and a Talent Show feature where users submit videos of them singing. For creators, Facebook now let streamers earn tips with its new Stars virtual currency, and lets fans subscribe to donating money to their favorite video makers like on Patreon. And on the publisher side, Facebook Live has also built tools to help publishers pull in social media content. It’s even got an interactive video API that it’s developing to allow developers to launch their own HQ Trivia-game shows.

But the last line of Vidpresso’s announcement above explains Facebook’s intentions here, and also why it didn’t just try to build the tools itself. It doesn’t just want established news publishers and TV studios making video for its platform. It wants semi-pro creators to be able to broadcast snazzy videos with graphics, comments and polls that can aesthetically compete with “big video” but that feel more natural.

Every internet platform is wising up to the fact that web-native creators who grew up on their sites often create the most compelling content and the most fervent fan bases. Whichever video hub offers the best audience growth, creative expression tools and monetization options will become the preferred destination for creators’ work, and their audiences will follow. Vidpresso could help these creators look more like TV anchors than selfie monologuers, but also help them earn money by integrating brand graphics and tie-ins. Facebook couldn’t risk another tech giant buying up Vidpresso and gaining an edge, or wasting time trying to build interactive video technology and expertise from scratch.

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