I am watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on Facebook. “LIVE”. For free, apparently.
Not because I opened Facebook with the intention of watching (and paying for) a movie, like I might open Netflix or Google Play Movies.
No, it’s just on. I was scrolling through my news feed, and the movie was there, playing.
There are thumbs up icons and heart emoji floating across it and I can barely see anything, so I click the little icon to maximise it and get rid of them, but I clicked the wrong one and instead now the movie is floating on the side.
Still playing, even when I scroll away.
The emoji are gone. But it’s still “LIVE”, and apparently three thousand other people are doing this too.
So why is Eternal Sunshine suddenly streaming for free on Facebook? It’s part of an initiative by Focus Features called Focus15 that brings attention to some of their Academy Award-winning classics to celebrate their fifteenth anniversary. It’s undoubtedly an experiment, paid for by the attention it brings their brand, yada yada yada. But they might learn invaluable lessons from it. They’re creating moments that bring their audience together and expose them to some of their most cherished works.
At the same time, Facebook recently launched Facebook Watch, clearly positioned to provide an experience similar to Youtube. Facebook Watch is strange, because while Youtube’s format suits Youtube, I’m not sure it suits Facebook, where scrolling through the news feed is the main thing you do.
Focus Features Focus15's #FocusFridays (what a mouthful) isn’t on Facebook Watch. It’s on the news feed. What would happen if publishers and platforms that produce other forms of media did this? What about shows? Music? Radio? Live TV?
This is TV for a new generation, one that absentmindedly consumes multiple channels of information in parallel — even more so than the downtrodden Generation X, caricatured by the media for decades as mindless MTV addicts. It’s not that they suffer from undiagnosed attention deficit disorder; it’s that they’ve grown up in a world where information comes at them from multiple angles all day. But they’ve learned to deal with it. They’ve learned to manage their attention, and they rarely spend all of it on one thing at a time.
You used to have to use a window manager to manage attention in an interactive environment. Now there’s scrolling. Want to pay attention to something? Stop scrolling and look at it. Done? Scroll away. Like flipping back and forth through TV channels, the easiest action also seems the most mindless.
“Are you from the fifties or something?”
Speaking of TV, can you remember what it was like? Zapping through channels looking for “what’s on”. Whatever you watched was whatever everyone else watched. You argued over the remote. You missed shows you weren’t around for.
I don’t do that anymore. Like many, I’ve abandoned television for the more convenient on-demand digital subscription service. Now I can just watch whenever I want, rather than synchronise my life around someone else’s schedule.
Looking back on TV now is nostalgic. I remember watching the same stuff at the same time every day after school growing up. It was part of the routine. We’d tape films (on videotape!), get it wrong and miss the start. Turning the TV on after midnight might lead to discovering something amazing (memorably, Before Sunrise). There was no “on-demand”. You’d just catch re-runs coincidentally, rather than binge-watch old shows intentionally. Star Trek was always playing somewhere, but you were never able to pick which episode or series.
Nostalgia often comes with a recognition of idiosyncrasies. TV’s charm was that it was part of us taking our first step into creating wider communal media for ourselves that has since only been superseded by the internet. It was surprisingly social, despite its limitations.
Adding social to TV or adding TV to social
Platforms have been trying to make digital services social the way TV was for years. Boxee failed. GetGlue failed. “Second screens”, including everything from Xbox Live to Nintendo TVii failed.
So far, just using your smartphone or tablet while watching on your old-school half-smart, half-dumb TV has been the only thing that works. Social features are minimal to non-existent. Most of the companies who’ve been trying have given up.
But maybe the problem has been that they were staying too close to the format of TV instead of embracing its spirit. Bolting on a social component — adding Twitter to TV — appears not to work. Focus Features, through Facebook, have highlighted the potential of the opposite: adding TV to your news feed. TV in the sense of TV, too, where you know you’re part of a larger communal experience. It’s not just you on the couch. It’s you and everyone else — it works for the same reason that airing Game of Thrones on Sunday night works, except “everyone” in the context of Facebook is on a completely different scale.
And Focus (whose name strikes me as ironic in this particular setting) might be onto something, because they’re playing into that behaviour of watching TV while simultaneously browsing Facebook on your phone. Sometimes the right design is just observing what people are already doing and bringing product features together to reflect that.
There’s a reason it’s “Netflix and chill” and not just “Netflix”: you don’t watch the show with all your attention focused on it. You do it while you do something else. So the TV can live in the sidebar, because the more important thing, the thing you came to do, is browse Facebook and socialise. And sure, I’ll watch a movie while I do that. Whereas with TV you asked “What’s on?”, Facebook reflects the question back to you as “What’s on your mind?”. The balance has shifted from the shows being watched to the people watching them.
Netflix has either not figured this out (doubtful), disagrees (likely), or chooses not to go in that direction. Meanwhile, when you watch Netflix and you want to be part of “The Conversation”, you go somewhere else. That conversation is lost to Netflix — they have to go out and monitor it elsewhere; find the fans first. On Facebook, the conversation happens in the comments of the video, using the infrastructure they already had in place. There is no watching alone on Facebook. Nothing happens alone on Facebook.
And not just on Facebook. “Nothing happens alone” is a central tenet of social media. Platform designers know this, and intentionally design them to take advantage of the FOMO (fear of missing out) effect. It’s what makes push notifications so effective: you must know what is happening, all the time. It’s also why the attention management I mentioned earlier is so important (it should be taught in high school as part of a class on how to manage your online presence, along with information security, privacy, anti-bullying and fact checking). Combine FOMO with live video and autoplay, and there’s an opportunity to be more like TV and further increase engagement.
Video may be playing on your news feed somewhere. Will you scroll and see it? Right now most of the content is short, lightweight, and highly effective. I’m sure the likelihood of people watching entire shows and movies while scrolling is much smaller than watching cat videos. But I’m not interested in engagement, I’m interested in TV.
What happens when Facebook launches its own Netflix competitor and puts top of the line shows there? Movies, like Focus?
What happens when the hovering video in the sidebar is just there by default, all the time?
I’ve switched tabs to Medium to write this, but in the background, Eternal Sunshine is still playing. Joel’s inside his own head now, watching his memories fade before him. He’s trying to get away from the process, but it’s too late. It’s on autoplay, showing him reruns of his favourite moments with Clementine.
Since Facebook lives inside a browser tab, it’s limited. It can’t go with you when you need to do something else. I’m sure they’d like to break out of that constraint. If I wrote this with Facebook Notes, I’d be able to keep watching.
I switch back to the tab. It’s still playing. I scroll around. Something catches my eye. I click the link. Facebook loads the page. The video is gone.
I click the back button to go back to my news feed. Still no video. The post by Focus isn’t where it was. The moment has passed. My mind wanders. I open Twitter.