Widgets Magazine

The many faces of Facebook Live

On my way to the kitchen for ice cream after a guiltily pleasurable episode of “The Bachelor,” I overheard an unfamiliar commercial. If you’ve ever stayed on the same channel for hours, you somehow know every ad by heart, even the ones for unpronounceable medications. I turned around to see a man walking on his hands, a woman juggling four balls, accordion playing, fancy yo-yoing, magic card tricks, dancing and singing. According to the commercial, all these hidden talents were made “not-so-hidden” via Facebook Live.

Just a few days after I’d seen this ad, four teenagers in Chicago used Facebook Live as a medium to stream themselves torturing an autistic man. Despite feelings of disgust and anger, I was curious thinking back to the upbeat commercial. How could a tool so seemingly innocent be used in such a horrible manner? Do people actually use Facebook Live the way Mark Zuckerberg intended? What is its real purpose, anyway?

Even though I’ve been on Facebook for over two years, I have no recollection of Live’s launch and I’m not the only one. When asked if she’s ever used the latest feature, freshman Melina Walling ’20 said, “I’ve never used Facebook Live and it seems kind of gimmicky to me. I’m sure some people find it useful, but most of the time I honestly forget it exists.”

In fact, livestream video was nothing new in May 2015 when Zuckerberg introduced the revolutionary addition. Other downloadable apps were available months before, including Twitter’s version, Periscope, and independently launched Meerkat. For its first year, Live’s popularity was nowhere near its competitors. Not until Candace Payne, a 37-year-old mother from Texas, produced a social media frenzy did Facebook’s new feature finally become the focus of its users. The four-minute video features Payne laughing hysterically at her newest purchase for her son: a plastic, interactive Chewbacca mask.

While some viewers scoffed at the foolishness of the video, millions of others laughed right along with the publicly proclaimed “Chewbacca Mom.” Similar to the commercials, Payne’s video received hearts, likes and many positive comments. Even though Zuckerberg intended for Live to interact between the broadcaster and the viewers, Payne didn’t encourage questions, address specific users or give any shoutouts. She simply spoke (or laughed) to a wider audience without a care in the world.

For 30 minutes, anyone with a Facebook account can broadcast anything. This freedom comes with potential dangers, as demonstrated by the heinous torture video from earlier this month.

One of Facebook Live’s defining features is its ability to stay on a user’s timeline until removed. The recorded video can be watched and shared again and again. Other social media platforms, including Instagram, have also jumped on the livestream video bandwagon since Live’s popularity skyrocketed last spring.

Both Facebook and Instagram notify users when a friend or follower goes “live,” but there is one rather crucial difference: Instagram users can’t re-watch the video. Once the live video ends, it can’t be saved or shared in any fashion. Had the Chicagoan teens chosen Instagram as their tool to share their crime, they might have evaded justice.

Facebook Live allows users to report a video, and with enough people reporting a video, it is eventually taken down. Other instances of kidnappings and shootings allow people to see and judge, in real time, the perpetrators and the victims of the actions taken. The dark side of Live is something like a two-headed monster: useful but unpredictable.

There’s also the lighthearted, intended nature of Live that Zuckerberg promotes endlessly: sharing silly moments with kids, miraculous discoveries, warranted (and unwarranted) rants. As CNN contributor Alex Krasodomski-Jones aptly wrote, “Facebook Live is the latest example of this drive toward breaking down the barriers and filters between you and an audience.” This new method of storytelling is just like any other new technological communication tool: one that must be used with moderation and maturity, but doesn’t discourage enjoyment and playfulness.

 

Contact Emily Schmidt at egs1997 ‘at’ stanford.edu.