Over 85% of users watch videos on Facebook with the sound off. However, over the past few months Facebook has been rolling out a change: videos will automatically play with sound on. There is of course a tedious process to change that setting, one which most of us probably won’t bother with.
And, as per usual, users have reacted with contempt:
Of course, Facebook’s fickle users (myself included) have always acted like petulant children with even the slightest update (remember the outrage when they changed the Wall to a Timeline?). Eventually, though, we always come around.
But will this time be the same?
Sound on may seem a like a minor tweak, and my guess is that yes, users will get over it. However it may have major implications—mainly for publishers.
The social video revolution
When Facebook changed their algorithm to bring about the great video shift (what seems like) ages ago (in 2016), publishers and companies went all-in on social video. That is, short-form video, often with subtitles at least, but more commonly incorporating slideshow-style captioned text to draw out important editorial points. These videos typically start with a striking image, scene, or statement to grab the viewer’s attention, and end within 90–120 seconds—before the viewer gets too bored and scrolls on.
Publishers have done quite well at growing reach, views, and engagement with social video—but at a cost. It has dissuaded them from using resources for more substantial long-form content. This has created a social media video culture that rewards flash, often at the expense of context and storytelling.
Understandably, most publishers have doubled down on short-form social videos. There are exceptions: for example Vox has managed to incorporate the short-form style while maintaining its trademark “explain the news” depth.
Still, the trend towards brevity concerned Facebook enough that earlier this year they implemented an algorithmic tweak, seemingly in an attempt to address the issue. Up until now, though, it seems to have had little impact.
Facebook vs. YouTube
Autoplaying sound on videos seems like a more serious attempt by Facebook to dissuade publishers from going all in on short-form social video, and nudge them towards allotting more resources for long-form content. Or at the very least, they’re trying to level the playing field for experimentation with different styles of video production.
This shift makes sense: longer videos could mean a greater potential for monetization by both Facebook and publishers, longer time spent in app, and hopefully more useful engagement. Meaningful video engagement, measured by such metrics as “quality watch time”, is one area where Facebook falls short to YouTube.
Is sound on the first step at competing with YouTube on quality, long-form content? It remains to be seen. In any case, the move is a big gamble by Facebook on the intentions of its users. The fact remains that most people don’t open the app to watch videos. Rather, they scroll their timeline to be fed content, without caring much what it is.
Juxtapose that with YouTube’s users, who go to the platform specifically seeking long-form video content. In terms of quality video engagement and long-form content, Facebook may be picking an unwinnable fight. Still, it will be interesting to see whether or not publishers use this tweak to change how they produce videos.