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With a Big Push From Facebook, Facebook Video Is Booming. Heads Up, YouTube.

Facebook says its "autoplay" videos are working, and you're going to be seeing more of them. A lot more.

Screengrab by Re/code
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Do you like watching videos on Facebook?

You’re not alone. And you’re going to be seeing a lot more of them.

That’s the word from Facebook, which is excited about the rapid uptake of its new, autoplaying videos — both the kind that users pass along on their own and the ones advertisers are paying to get in front of users.

You should generally ignore most companies’ “momentum” announcements, and at Re/code we try hard not to bother you with them in the first place. But in this case it is worth paying attention to Facebook, because there’s a very good chance that its push into video could be a very big deal.

Facebook has set up a system designed to encourage the distribution of video to its giant user base. If it works — and early signs are promising — it might end up providing a real alternative to YouTube.

Some stats:

  • “Organic” video views — stuff your friends shared — have been growing 50 percent from May through July.
  • Facebook says it is now doing a billion video views per day.
  • BuzzFeed, one of the partners Facebook tapped to help tell its story, says it was doing 130 million Facebook video views in June, and that it has seen massive growth since then: Up 130 percent from June to July, and another 200 percent from July to August.
  • A bunch of this is likely due to the Ice Bucket Challenge videos, which were viewed 10 billion times this summer.

Much more important is understanding how Facebook is pushing video through its system. After a long windup, Facebook finally started rolling out autoplaying videos — videos without sound that start playing in your feed without a prompt from you — last fall.

This spring, those clips started ramping up, because Facebook changed its algorithm to start showing more videos to people who like videos. But Facebook doesn’t require you to actively “engage” with a video — by turning on the sound, or sharing it, or anything else — to decide that you like videos. All it needs you to do is watch a portion of the clip — Facebook won’t say out loud how long that is — without scrolling past.

To recap: Facebook made it easier to get videos in front of people, then set up a feedback loop that would show more videos to people who didn’t run away from those clips. Presto! Lots of video growth.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with this plan. And Facebook says that people who saw autoplaying videos were twice as likely to watch the whole thing as people who clicked to play videos in their feed. It says this is evidence that it’s doing a good job of finding stuff you’d like to see.

And you’ll be seeing more of this stuff, Facebook says. It will be offering more advertisers the ability to have clips like these autoplay. It will also increase the likelihood that popular videos get even more popular, by showing view counts — the kind you’re used to seeing on YouTube videos — on its clips. Hey, if lots of people have watched this, it must be good — I’ll keep watching ….

I do wonder how much of the early pickup Facebook is seeing from autoplay is due to novelty. Facebook used to be static, and now there are moving images, and that sure seems like something that will cause most people to stop and watch. At least the first few times.

But remember that when banner ads came out in the mid-’90s, they had huge engagement rates, too — no one had ever seen those before, either. Now it’s a different story.

But there are plenty of reasons to assume that Facebook video really is taking off. The most obvious ones are that people like to watch video — that’s why YouTube has more than a billion users — and that sharing videos with your friends in Facebook, as opposed to emailing or whatevering them a link, makes them much more likely to watch it.

And if that’s the case, then video makers are going to need to figure out what sort of clips will work best on Facebook, where most people are going to encounter them as silent movies. What sort of thing would make you stop and watch a video that’s already started, without any sound cues?

Again, it’s useful to see some of the stuff that’s already working for BuzzFeed. Here’s the most recent clip from the site to generate more than a million shares on Facebook*. Note that it doesn’t require any audio at all to work, and allows you to “enter” the clip at nearly every juncture without knowing anything about what came before it.

* Why are we showing it to you via a YouTube embed? Because Facebook hasn’t made their clips embeddable. Seems silly, and like something that they’ll fix sooner than later. Update: Facebook does indeed make its public videos — along with the post they were published on — embeddable. But the embed code they provided doesn’t seem to play nicely with the publishing system we use (WordPress), so we’ll stick with YouTube for now.

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