Facebook’s business model relies on free content generated by their users to be sustainable. Just like any other social media platform — Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and even Reddit — an online social tool is only useful if the user can see updates from others and interact with them¹.
Interactions, however, mostly used to take place between close friends or relatives, exactly as it was intended to happen. When it launched in 2004, “The Facebook” was exclusive to Harvard students before being slowly made available to other Ivy League universities in the US.²
As the networking website turned into a global internet phenomenon, it became clear that purely organic engagement was not enough to keep users online for as long as advertisers wanted. Marked by a massive (and forced) layout change, the current timeline design replaced the original profile space known as the “Wall” in December 2011. Content thus started to be curated by Facebook, with algorithms being in charge of which posts are most relevant to each account instead of being shown in chronological order.³
That move paved the way to the new reality users face today: a Facebook feed filled with content uploaded by people or pages they haven’t heard of. This paper will assess how that paradigm shift affects creators on YouTube, how that reach of millions Facebook allegedly offers is not the symbiotic relationship it pretends to be and demonstrate that the Silicon-Valley-based company is quietly encouraging freebooting since it directly benefits them.
“Freebooting” is a word coined by the popular video journalist and podcaster Brady Haran.⁴ It describes the act of downloading videos from YouTube and uploading them to Facebook without the creator’s explicit permission, which in turn loses viewership, advertising revenue and hinders the growth of his community. Contrary to popular belief, the “exposure” a stolen video brings an online influencer is close to zero even when it has tens of thousands of shares, as freebooters purposely tend to avoid linking to the source material. Some even go as far as cropping out watermarks, forcing filmmakers to find creative alternatives to include them without bothering the viewer. (See figures 1 and 2)
I first realized the scale of that problem when my own YouTube channel was the victim of piracy. “Guru da Ciência”, which in Portuguese means “The Science Guru”, is only a hobby of mine but has grown to the point where I understand the struggles professional creators go through. A Facebook page liked by over 12,500 people and followed by 22,000 others⁶ re-hosted many video essays I produced without my consent, something a subscriber of mine had to alert me of since Facebook has no system in place to perform such checks. I reached out to established creators I met at the YouTube Space Rio to hear from their experience on how to proceed, only to hear a single, echoed consensus: that taking a video down is a painstakingly long and bureaucratic process that is not worth the time, as it takes weeks and remains profitless⁷. The fact that YouTubers with millions of subscribers have given up on taking action against Facebook shows that they have succeeded in distancing themselves from a problem they helped create. Their official help center recommends rights holders to resolve issues by contacting the infringer directly⁸, while videos that originated outside of Facebook are deliberately prevented from reaching a wide audience.⁹
As exposed in an article by internet entrepreneur Hank Green¹⁰, the thousand most popular Facebook videos in the first quarter of 2015 accounted for 17 billion stolen views. If this were a problem that truly concerned the half-a-trillion-dollar company¹¹, then freebooting would no longer be rampant on the platform. They did take steps in the right direction after traditional media outlets reported on topic by implementing an audio-matching system called “Audible Magic”, which is supposed to detect copyright-protected content by analyzing the audio tracks it contains.¹² Up to this point, however, the algorithm is still in its beta stage, is not available to everyone and continues to suffer from the problems the creators I talked to brought up.
YouTube’s policies on intellectual property, on the other hand, are (and need to be) far more advanced because content is monetizable. Their “Content ID”-System is capable of looking at what is being displayed in the video, what is being said by the people in it and even catch attempts at tempering such as cropped or flipped uploads. Once a video gets flagged, the original rights holder is notified and then is in the position to decide whether it was fair use. If that is not the case, he or she can opt between preventing others from seeing it or start to generate revenue off of it.¹³
That business model proves that it is possible to incentivize people to make free content for your platform without it being cloned from somewhere else, which is what Facebook should be striving for. Despite offering valuable protection to individuals and a 55–45% earnings split through advertising, it should not be forgotten that Google’s parent company actually has a monopoly on video¹⁴ which drastically reduces a creator’s leverage in the ever-changing online streaming landscape. Mark Zuckerberg’s company is the only one capable of realistically posing a threat to YouTube, and they certainly could attract many of the left-behind influencers¹⁵ by playing their cards right.
Competition would lead to more favorable conditions for creators, better content for viewers and advertising space for agencies, while forcing the platforms to innovate. By improving Audible Magic’s accuracy, Facebook would be taking the first big step to become the next key player in the digital film market. Besides that, implementing a monetization strategy and being more honest about metrics is essential. Monetization is at last under development for publishers of premium video content¹⁶, such as television shows — suspiciously exactly the ones, that have the resources to take legal action and file freebooting lawsuits. Additionally, Facebook should consider revamping the indicators used to gauge performance. Their numbers are inflated due to the autoplay feature on a user’s feed, which increments the view counter after just three seconds. Comparatively, YouTube takes the retention rate into account and only registers a page as viewed around the 30 second mark.¹⁷
It is understandable that a company wants to boast enormous statistics to please their shareholders, but in the long term that kind of attitude may scare potential creators away. If Facebook were to act on these points in order to become more transparent and appealing, it would be a signal to the world that their freebooting days are long gone.
¹ Chen, Andrew. Social network marketing: getting from zero to critical mass. http://andrewchen.co/social-network-marketing-getting-from-zero-to-critical-mass/
² Phillips, Sarah. A brief history of Facebook
³ Wassermann, Todd. How Facebook Timeline might radically change the look of brand pages
³ Gayomali, Chris. Facebook introduces ‘Timeline’: The ‘Story’ of your life
⁴ Haran, Brady. The Birth of Freebooting
⁵ Sandlin, Destin. Facebook Freebooting
⁶ “Astronomia e Ciência” (Astronomy and Science)
⁶ “Guru da Ciência”
⁷ Special thanks to these amazing YouTubers for taking the time to talk about their experiences:
Ana de Cesaro
Matheus Castro / Marcos Castro
⁸ Facebook. How do I report copyright infringement on Facebook?
⁹ Rousseau, Cara. University of Duke. Sharing Video on Facebook
¹⁰ Green, Hank. Theft, Lies, and Facebook Video
¹¹ YCharts. Facebook Market Cap (Dec. 8, 2017: 520B USD)
¹² Facebook. An Update on Video Management on Facebook
¹³ YouTube. YouTube Content ID
¹⁴ CGP Grey. Hello Internet
http://www.hellointernet.fm/podcast/hi-93-mr-chompers (at 1:35:30 onwards)
¹⁵ Chandra, Akshay. Is YouTube killing the Animation Industry?
¹⁶ Facebook. An Update on Video Monetization
¹⁷ Google. TrueView in-stream ads