A simmering debate that began when Facebook dove into the video streaming business in 2014 with its auto-start functionality has burst into the open thanks to a blog post published in August by popular YouTube star Hank Green.
Green is an American YouTube star, one half of the Vlogbrothers duo, whose YouTube channel has more than 552 million views and more than 2.5 million subscribers. He is also co-founder of the influential VidCon conference.
Green wrote that Facebook is inflating video view stats to be seen as a superior rival to YouTube. You can read the full post on Medium.com under the not so subtle headline “Theft, Lies, and Facebook Video.”
Aside from the rich irony of Google-owned YouTube calling out Facebook as a disruptor in the still-nascent online video space, the question of when a video view counts as a video view is one publishers should be keeping an eye on.
In its ambition to usurp YouTube as the dominant online video platform, Facebook is counting anything over three seconds as a view, and it auto starts its videos on scroll with volume muted.
Green says this is cheating.
“This might seem a little like this is a victimless crime, but it fundamentally devalues the No. 1 metric of online video. The view is the thing that everyone talks about and it’s the thing creators sell to advertisers in order to make a living,” Green wrote.
“Applying that word to something far less valuable is going to be extremely disruptive to creators. Ad agencies and brands are confused enough without Facebook muddying the waters by calling something a view when it is in no way a measure of viewership.”
Fair enough. But Green fails to note that the three-second rule is actually the more prominent benchmark for an online video play employed by Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr as well.
Based purely on the numbers, and setting aside the fact that three seconds seems like a crazy-short interval by which to count a play, Facebook is driving better numbers consistently for publishers than YouTube.
Case in point: While both The New York Times and The Guardian post on YouTube and break into the hundreds of thousands and even million-plus plays on occasion, the vast majority level off in the more modest 2,000 to 5,000 range. Meanwhile, the very same videos in Facebook are regularly played hundreds of thousands of times.
No wonder YouTube sent one of its stars out to make its case.
Green also accuses Facebook of promoting the practise of “freebooting,” wherein people rip videos from YouTube and upload them to Facebook without the original creator’s permission.
In his post, he accused Facebook of being purposefully slow to pull down such pirated content so it doesn’t have to share ad revenues with the original creator.
Green says the social network’s three-second rule is fueling freebooting occurrences, as contributors – media companies and brands included – try to bump up stats on their videos by ripping popular YouTube videos and uploading them to Facebook from their own accounts.
He cited recent research from Ogilvy and Tubular Labs, claiming that 725 of the 1,000 most popular Facebook videos in the first quarter of 2015 were freebooted.
“This is not insignificant. It’s the vast majority of Facebook’s high volume traffic,” he wrote.
Facebook was quick jump to its own defense, downplaying the accusations, but, according to Business Insider, stopped short of outright denying charges that it cheats on how it generates video views.
Then, a few weeks later, Facebook also announced that it will soon begin to beta test a new content management technology with a small number of publishing partners to prevent the unauthorised redistribution of videos on the platform.
Green is not alone in criticising Facebook’s freebooting culture. According to The Guardian, in June, the chief executive of multi-channel network (MCN) Fullscreen said his company was suffering from similar piracy.
“I love FB video but getting very tired of seeing our videos ripped there with no way to monitor or monetise. Remember that YT was sued by Viacom for over US$1BN for this,” George Strompolos wrote as part of a Facebook-focussed tweetstorm.
“I now regularly see our videos with 50M+ view counts that are stolen by individuals on FB ... sometimes by other media companies,” Strompolos continued. “It costs us a lot to hunt them down one by one. I’m a huge DMCA proponent, but this has to improve fast. Frankly, I’m shocked that a rights holder with deep pockets has not sued yet.”
We at the The Toronto Star also came face to face with the issue not too long ago, which helps illustrate what’s at stake for newspaper publishers.
A few months ago, we watched in a combination of horror and amazement when a media outlet in Turkey posted a video to Facebook shot by our own photojournalist Randy Risling last year.Randy had flown to Malaysia to document a base-jumping event where Canadian paraplegic Lonnie Bissonnette parachuted off the roof of a 33-story building in his wheelchair.
The video generated a good response for The Star, and remains a point of pride for Randy’s first-rate journalism and the resulting jaw-dropping story.
Then, earlier this year we caught wind that this Turkish media outlet had recut the video and posted it to its Facebook feed. Total views to date are approaching 14 million.
These issues will become even more contentious when Facebook broadens its selling of ads around videos uploaded and sharing revenues with uploaders, who may or may not be the creators.
Clearly, the question of how a media company’s IP is used on Facebook is something publishers should be watching very closely.