Technology First Look

Is Facebook set to become more like Netflix or YouTube?

'I see video as a megatrend,' said Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg, explaining the site plans to invest heavily in the medium.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg delivers the keynote address at the F8 Facebook Developer Conference in San Francisco in April, 2016.
Eric Risberg/AP/File
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Internet users of the future will spend even more time each day staring at their screens, at least if Facebook has its way.

The social media giant is doubling down on its prediction that video is the future. “We’re focusing more on shorter form content to start,” chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg said of the company’s video strategy at Thursday's fourth quarter earnings call. The move will put it into direct competition with YouTube, although other plans take aim at streaming giant Netflix as well.

Despite its vigorous denial of the term, Facebook has taken on many of the hallmarks of a media company. Second only to Google’s parent Alphabet in digital advertising, the social network depends on attracting the attention of its users and selling it to advertisers to turn a profit.

But even the infinitely scrolling newsfeed can’t cram in enough ads to maintain the level of revenue growth it strives for. The company has known since at least last November that the Newsfeed was running out of ad-room, and executives predicted that revenue growth would “come down meaningfully” in 2017, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The solution? Video. Companies are willing to pay more for video ads than text or images, which dovetails nicely with Mr. Zuckerberg’s opinion that video is a “megatrend,” as The Christian Science Monitor previously reported:

Five years from now, your Facebook newsfeed will "probably" be "all video," according to Facebook executive Nicola Mendelsohn....

"The best way to tell stories in this world, where so much information is coming at us, actually is video," Mrs. Mendelsohn said. "It conveys so much more information in a much quicker period. So actually the trend helps us to digest much more information."…

Studies have shown that native videos – videos posted to Facebook directly by users or pages – also receive more likes, comments, and shares than other content. Newswhip found that while user engagement with links posted to Facebook by media publishers declined significantly over the past year, engagement with native videos rose exponentially.

The question is, how will Facebook draw our eyeballs away from Netflix binges and Youtube sprees, not to mention plain old TV? Facebook has already dropped some hints with the recent rollout of Facebook Live.

The first thing you need is content, and for that Facebook engaged in a practice known as “seeding,” where the company paid media producers such as Vox Media to create high-quality video. As the service gains popularity, more producers will likely join, which Facebook hopes will open the door to sell more advertising. Once there’s enough momentum the service is essentially paying for itself.

Facebook’s chief financial officer David Wehner said “our focus was on kickstarting the ecosystem here for the video tab ... We’re looking at a wide range of content,” TechCrunch reports.

For now, that content will likely be short clips that users watch on the spot, the moment the video grabs their attention. From internal data, Facebook knows that people tend to stumble upon videos in their newsfeeds and watch them spontaneously, and similarly quick clips will likely be Zuckerberg’s “ primary focus for the foreseeable future.” You might call this the YouTube model.

But eventually, Facebook wants to be a proper go-to destination for video. “The experience is designed to deliver on that promise — [that] you want to watch videos, you want to keep up with the content that you watch episodically week over week. This is going to be the place where you go to do that.” Zuckerberg said.

According to Recode, Facebook is already talking with TV studios about licensing shows. It even has plans to make the leap from devices to TVs with a set-top box app in development, The Wall Street Journal reports. These moves may start to encroach on the Netflix/Amazon territory.

Regardless of whether Facebook catches viewers gaze with short clips or longer, episodic content, it all comes back to advertising. Rather than employing the “pre-load” ads of YouTube fame that risk irritating the viewer, Facebook is experimenting with “mid-roll” ads that run in the middle of content, more like a traditional TV ad.

Live, long form, short form – in some sense Facebook is kind of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks, and Zuckerberg doesn’t deny it. “Over the longer term ... people will experiment with longer forms of video as well as all kinds of different things.”

But when you’re surfing on a megatrend, trying everything may be the only thing that makes sense. The number of videos played on Facebook surged from 4 billion a day to 8 billion, in less than a year. The most conservative assumption of 3 seconds per video translates 8 billion views into 760 years of daily watch-time. That year? 2015.