This story is part of a series on how we watch—from the delight of Netflix randomness to crappy captions on YouTube.
At some point during episode four of Sorry For Your Loss, I started to get the sense that the show had been deliberately engineered to trigger the same kind of sniffly-nose, hug-your-pet-closer sensation you might feel after reading a friend’s Facebook post about putting their dog down.
In fact, there were all kinds of pointed emotional threadlines in this show starring Elizabeth Olsen: death of a beloved spouse, love, loss, grieving, moving, troubled siblings, depression, addiction, and yes, the final days of a soulful floof. All compelling stories appeal to our emotions, of course, but Facebook is uniquely capable of twisting those threadlines into knots. As I watched, comments poured in alongside the program window. “The 4th episode made me ugly cry because I lost my 13 yr old Boston Terrier in 2015,” one viewer wrote.
This experience is Facebook Watch in a nutshell. And if you’re asking, “What’s Facebook Watch?” I wouldn’t be surprised. When I told friends I was watching Facebook Watch for a couple weeks, many said they had never heard of it.
A dive into how we watch stuff.
And yet Facebook says that currently, a year after its global launch, more than 720 million people watch Watch videos monthly and around 140 million people watch them daily. Facebook has packaged its video metrics in, um, clever ways before, so I asked for more specifics. Basically, those monthly and daily numbers account for people who have visited the Watch tab or app and have spent at least one minute there. They might not actually be watching Watch but searching for something to Watch on watch. I mean, watch on Watch.
But this isn’t a story about Facebook Watch’s engagement numbers (murky), its long-term strategy for original video (unclear), or its minimum requirements for ads (creators need to have more than 10,000 Facebook followers and have generated more than 30,000 one-minute views on their videos). It’s not even really about content moderation, a huge and thorny issue for Facebook. (Facebook says its original programming pages are moderated by human beings who are intimate with the video content or show.)
This is about the act of watching Watch. It’s about diverting your eyes from Netflix or Hulu or YouTube or Twitter or Amazon, and instead giving your full attention, that hot but finite commodity, back to Facebook. Not only your attention but your emotions too.
Facebook Watch is a dedicated tab, a lens through which you’re supposed to view Facebook videos. Go to your browser, type in Facebook.com, look to the left, and below Newsfeed and Messenger you’ll see “Videos on Watch.” It’s also accessible via the Facebook mobile app, on Apple TV, and on Samsung smart TVs.
I check my Facebook account infrequently these days, but I had to put that reality aside as I reentered Big Blue’s atmosphere. I even re-downloaded the mobile app. And that’s exactly the goal: What better way to lure people back into conversation on Facebook than to draw them toward compelling video content, now with its own section on Facebook’s website? Never mind that I remain confused that WIRED’s editor-in-chief, Nicholas Thompson, appears in my Facebook Watch list along with a talk show series from the very famous Jada Pinkett Smith. They both make videos; therefore, they are a part of Watch.
Pinkett Smith’s show Red Table Talk, which she created, executive produces, and hosts, might be the ideal form of an original Watch series. It doesn’t just fire up the pilot light of Facebook comments, which appear alongside the program window. The show’s producers also source ideas for upcoming episodes from community members. “The hunch we had is that when you develop a more direct connection with the content, you’re able to develop a more direct connection with other people who like that content,” Matthew Henick, Facebook’s head of content planning and strategy, told me. “We think we can make the entire life cycle of video more social, or socially powered.”
Pinkett Smith and her cohosts, her mother Adrienne and 19-year-old daughter Willow, anchor Red Table Talk from a lacquered red table. No topic is off limits: The hosts and their guests discuss racial tensions, polyamorous relationships, abuse, divorce, infidelity, Scientology. The conversations are charged with energy, and are often enlightening. It’s hugely popular: Views per episode range from the low millions to as many as 10 million.
But the social media giant never really disappears while you’re attempting to kick back and relax and, well, watch. Facebook Watch shows are intertwined with the platform. And it’s not nearly as subtle as (wink wink) Brene Brown making a cameo in an original Netflix film when her own hour-long special has just streamed on Netflix.
If you’re watching on Apple TV, you’re encouraged to use the touchpad on the Apple TV remote to send a Facebook “Like” in to Red Table Talk. You can also start a “Watch Party” for your friends—your Facebook friends, I mean. Facebook knows you’re probably already using some sort of second screen while you video and chill; why not use it to host a live screening of a preproduced video, so that all of you can comment on Facebook at once?
Sometimes, after the credits roll on Red Table Talk, you get a nudge to join the Facebook Red Table Talk community. You have to request permission to join the group, since members are often sharing personal stories, and before you’re welcomed in, you have to tell Facebook what you enjoy about the conversations on the show, or which host or character you identify with. Same with joining the Facebook group for Sorry For Your Loss: You’ll have to divulge which scene has resonated with you the most. Facebook’s hunger for our data—for our emotions—appears to be insatiable.
Anecdotally, all of this seems to be working as Facebook designed it. As one member of the community effused, “This RTT show is the ONLY reason I log on to Facebook. It’s AMAZING and I learn from every single episode!” And Henick says Red Table Talk isn’t the only show drawing people in like this. There are “structured ways and unstructured ways” that show creators are integrating Facebook into their shows.
On Mike Rowe’s show Returning the Favor, Facebook users nominate the do-gooders they’d like to see featured in future episodes. In the case of Ball in the Family, which chronicles the lives of the basketball-obsessed Ball family, Facebookers said they wanted to see longer episodes than the 15-minute ones that streamed in season one and part of season two. So, Henick says, Facebook quickly changed its production schedule and editing strategies to produce longer episodes. On the Facebook page for Huda Boss, a reality series about beauty entrepreneurs Huda Kattan and her sister Mona, the two regularly upload videos that address questions from their Official Group Members—how to perfect a pouty lip, or deal with hyper-pigmentation after pregnancy.
By now you get the point. Facebook is intent on creating a never-ending feedback loop, a dynamic in which you share a whole lot about yourself and desperately hope for connection in return, the goal of most social applications.
Considering its efforts around the actual video content, though, the Facebook Watch interface is confounding. In my own Watch list, original programs like Sorry For Your Loss and Red Table Talk sit just over I fucking love science (a Facebook page I follow) and Mirror. The latter shows snippets of videos about Mirror, a dystopian, internet-connected fitness mirror I wrote about last year.
Equally as befuddling is the visual marketing for many of Facebook’s original shows. Clicking on “Shows” on the Facebook Watch page brings you to a bingo card-like layout of thumbnails, many of which are text-heavy and … not particularly illustrative of the program.
Apocalypse Now This. Do or Dare. Double Take. Job Goals. Sacred Lies. Who knows what these are about? Are they scripted or reality? There are no video previews when you hover your cursor over the thumbnail. It’s as if the person in charge of designing Facebook Watch had just returned from a year-long sabbatical studying podcast art. The art for Pinkett Smith’s own show doesn’t have her image or likeness in it. Neither does Courteney Cox’s show. The faces of Kelly Ripa and Rachael Harris do appear on the art for their Facebook Watch program, although the most recent episode aired 40 weeks ago.
“The organization of the Watch tab is not great,” says Rich Greenfield, partner and analyst at LightShed Partners who has long studied the media space. “I think Facebook is still figuring out what its larger video strategy is, not to mention how to monetize it. It feels more like a hobby than a full-grown business right now.”
It may or may not be a hobby for Facebook. But Facebook Watch didn’t feel like a hobby to me. A hobby is, by definition, “an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure.” Sometimes I watch video series and films because I want to laugh, or cry, or think, or learn; and sometimes I put on HBO’s Succession for background noise while I nap on a Sunday (whenever I wake up, they’re all still jousting for control of the media conglomerate). Sometimes I spend a good portion of an evening passively watching movie previews, before landing on something I’ve determined is worth 90 minutes.
What surprised me about Facebook Watch was twofold: I enjoyed the programming, but it was Facebook itself that asked too much of me. It wanted me to engage, all the time, every episode. It wanted me to share. It wanted me to blurt out that I, too, have suffered loss. And while I was doing that, it wanted to brush Facebook logos on my brain. After a couple of weeks, I stopped watching Watch. I still receive notifications every time a stranger shares something to one of the show pages that I follow, like Sorry For Your Loss. I feel for the person, as the story they’re sharing is often one of grief, and it makes me question if we’re all getting out of Facebook Watch as much as it’s extracting from us.
More Stories on the Way We Watch Stuff
Netflix, Save Yourself and Add a Randomness Generator
What We Talk About When We Talk About Movies
The Problem With YouTube’s Terrible Closed ‘Craptions’
Keep TV Alive With the Four Best Live TV Streaming Services
Updated 10-1-19, 2 pm EST: This story was updated to correct the number of Facebook Watch monthly active users