Technology First Look

No more watching videos at work: Facebook will now default to audio

The company says the changes will improve the mobile viewing experience.

A Facebook Live billboard on the side of a building near New York's Penn Station. From billboards to TV ads to endless notifications, Facebook is furiously promoting its live video feature as it tries to get more users to shoot and watch such videos.
Anick Jesdanun/AP
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Facebook has unveiled a new set of video-related, mobile-friendly features, continuing a commitment to focus more on video and expand the platform's accessibility. 

Last May, Facebook executive Nicola Mendelsohn predicted that Facebook would "probably" be "all video" within five years. Agree or disagree, videos posted to the social networking site already receive more than 80 percent of all online video interactions.

Earlier this month, the company’s founder and chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg, told investors that, "I see video as a mega trend on the same order as mobile. That's why we're going to keep putting video first across our family of apps and making it easier for people to capture and share video in new ways."

On Tuesday, the company made good on Mr. Zuckerberg’s promise by announcing the new features. Together, they reflect an ongoing shift away from primarily accessing social media on desktops to expanding on other devices.

Many of the company’s innovations are geared towards phones, which nearly 1.2 billion members already use daily to access the site. Most people using mobile devices to capture video record vertically, and the site’s mobile version will now match its display to accommodate that, allowing videos to take up more of the screen as users scroll. On Android devices, there will also be the option to continue playing the video even after leaving the Facebook app.

The company’s decision to make a video’s sound play automatically has also drawn widespread notice. The feature could make it harder to peek at your newsfeed during work, but may pose less of a problem on a mobile device while wearing earbuds. Facebook’s press release said the company "positive feedback" after testing the feature, and that users will still be able to turn off the default in their settings.

With Facebook serving as a large, still-growing portal for video, changes like these could shape the videos users see in the coming years. In December, Ad Age’s Emma Hall reported that advertisers were adjusting their videos to better suit the website, shooting vertical ads and creating compelling visual content for silent autoplay.

It’s too soon to tell whether Facebook’s latest announcement will advance the former trend, or reverse the latter one, and if these changes will have unintended consequences. The BBC’s Dave Lee noted that silent autoplay had been a boon for hearing-impaired users, and that subtitles made “good business sense" and was "the right thing to do for accessibility.”

Another new product announced in Tuesday’s press release could give the company an even bigger influence over viral videos. The company plans to release a new video app for Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Samsung Smart TV that will bring videos shared and posted to the website to users’ television sets.

This could mark the start of a bigger foray into Facebook users’ living rooms. Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that the company is “in discussions with media companies to license long-form, TV-quality programming, people familiar with the situation said. A set-top box app would be a natural way to distribute that 'premium' content and make it accessible on TV sets.”

Facebook’s vice president of partnerships, Dan Rose, insists that the company isn’t picking a fight with the likes of Netflix. As he sees it, the company aims to first reach eyeballs on mobile devices then help users see those videos on a bigger screen.

“We're a mobile-first company, so the products we build will always be oriented around the experience you have on a mobile device when you're watching video,” he said.

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