The Watermelon Effect — A dystopian short-novel on the end of the news as we know it
It’s just a story, but something is happening.
Roma, april the 11, 2021.
It’s early morning. I just woke up. I’m staring at the ceiling. Not that I find it very attractive, I’m just loosing time, time I don’t have to pass in front of a screen. The phone rings. Too late. I got work to do.
I look trough my social feed. Let’s see what happened in the past few hours: The Facebook Chronicle has an entire article on “The Dog who couldn’t pee”, a live show with Carl, a pug that apparently has the biggest urinary bladder ever. He stayed without taking a pee for 34 hours and 32 minutes. 2.1 billions people were stuck in front of their screen in the last moments where the peeing finally happened:
“The global audience for the event was one of the biggest ever, right after Break-Up, the big-hit show about a man trying to understand the exact moment when a ballon was going to explode, which gathered an average of 2.5 billions people, with a peak of 2.9 billions when Mario, that was the name of the man, committed suicide throwing himself out of a window, blowing his last ballon.”
The article goes on recounting the story of the first big live social media success, back in 2016: Buzzfeed, one of the media company that still existed in the old days, gathered 800’000 people to watch two of its employees wrap rubber bands around a watermelon until it exploded. There was even an old interview to Craig Silverman, editor of Buzzfeed Canada at the time:
I remember those days. I shot that interview. I was in Perugia when the “Watermelon” happened. It was incredible. I was sitting in a restaurant watching the video with a friend of mine. I think I still have a photo somewhere.
The day after “The Watermelon Effect” was everywhere: CNN, The Verge, even Wired made a list “7 TV Shows With Fewer Viewers Than BuzzFeed’s Exploding Watermelon Video” (Louie and Halt and Catch Fire were among those tv show less successful than a WaterMelon and a bunch of rubber bands).
Even if it wasn’t a proper journalism-related issue, the debate on The Watermelon Effect spread rapidly at The International Journalism Festival (journalism festival) in Perugia. One panel in particular, aided by the presence of Craig Silverman, tried to understand what that “event” meant and what were the consequences in the media landscape.
A couple of days before, Re-code reported that Facebook has started paying big media companies to use his new feature “live video”: Buzzfeed, Vox, NyTimes and Sky were on board (among with others big names in the media landscape, even though their name remained undisclosed) . Nobody knew how much Facebook was willing to pay, but it was a lot, upfront, pretty much impossible to refuse.
I remember thinking, “this is disruptive, this is absurd, I mean, they’re getting money to use Facebook Live, they’re changing their way to produce content, for money. That’s not even branded content, it’s the most native advert I have ever seen, I mean it’s not even about the content anymore, it’s about the way content created and distributed. That’s a big difference. Broadcasters are usually paying media company for the content, not for the way content is distributed (or performed). Least but not last, broadcasters own the channels, but they cannot predict if a content would work, because they can’t decide who’s watching what. Facebook can”.
The same day Buzzfeed went live with the Watermelon, Mashable fired staff in a major shift to video content. Something was happening. Something big.
Nobody saw it coming. At first the “live video offer” was a great deal for the media companies, one of those win-win situation: you get the money, plus you’re sure your content got a lot of views too. But that offer it wasn’t meant to last. After a few months, Facebook stopped giving money to media companies, exactly as Silverman (almost) predicted.
What Facebook did was actually pretty clear: each and every media company involuntarily acted as beta tester for the live video service. Once everything was set up and fully functional, Mr. Z. did his move: he stopped giving money to the media, and published and historical status update that changed everything.
That was it. Facebook officially become a multifaceted entity: Social Media Platform and Content Provider all in the same place. Facebook could create the content, curate the content and aggregate the content anyway he wanted. For the rest of the media it was “game over”.
I’m watching the last moments of Carl having is long awaited pee over and over again. As expected there was an invasion of meme-pug all over the internet right after it.
I’m scrolling through my Flipboard account: Facebook Sport, Facebook Post, Facebook Tech, FaceFeed. When Facebook became the only newsroom still active, Flipboard pretty much lost any sense, but I’m still using it. I’m a romantic. That article has brought to my mind some old memories. I open google photos, the 2016 album, the watermelon year. In between a bunch of images, there’s one video I completely forgot about. It’s an interview I did with Mathew Ingram, at the time senior writer at Fortune magazine. Nobody saw it coming. I was wrong. Someone did, but nobody listened to him.
P.S. I like to write stories, but I like to write about media and how is evolving too, so I kind of made a mixture of the two. I don’t think media as we know it it’s gonna end, and I don’t think Facebook it’s gonna be responsible for that (it’s the biggest one, that’s it…), I just wanted to highlight the fact that Social Platform are no longer just social network and that we have to start thinking of them as what they really are: media companies, with great power. Thanks to Mathew Ingram and Craig Silverman to have been part of my story (as embedded video :D ), words were yours I just put a little bit of a dystopian atmosphere around them :P
P.P.S. Sorry for my english, still working on it.
P.P.P.S. To do the fake facebook status I used Simitato → http://simitator.com/generator/facebook/status