Nishat Kurwa on Wednesday, Aug. 1st
A version of this story aired on NPR’s All Things Considered.
It may seem like there’s no shortage of user-generated video being shared on the internet. Those “caught on camera” moments of everyone, from cops, to cats, to babies, are in healthy circulation on YouTube. But only about four percent of those YouTube videos are mobile videos: recorded on, and posted by, a smartphone.
Maybe that’s because it hasn’t been easy to make and post great video from your phone. Not being an avid phone video creator, I only recently encountered the frustrations of the exercise at a Robert Glasper show, where I became one of those annoying phone wielders marring a clear view of the stage so I could capture the band’s virtuosic performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It was dark in the club, and my video could have used a flash effect, as you can’t even make out the lead singer’s brilliant orange pompadour. And then there was the cumbersome upload process. To post the video, I had to close the phone’s camera, open my phone’s Facebook app, then fetch the video to upload to my profile. And it didn’t even appear on the page til hours later. Hardly the instant gratification we’re looking for when the joy of mobile sharing is to convey, and get feedback on, the emotion of the moment.
“When you’re using the Socialcam app, there’s literally a big silver button in the middle of everything. The second you’re inspired, you can take your first video,” said Socialcam CEO Micheal Seibel when I talked to him during his company’s rapid iteration of its product this spring. The social video app is trying to address the pain points of sharing phone video with its features that streamline the beautifying and uploading process.
Like with Instagram, you can apply various filters to a Socialcam video during recording, giving it the washed-out look of a watercolor painting, or the dancing white specks of a 1970s film reel. And you can quickly post video of any length across your social media pages directly from the app.
A little over six months after spinning out its product from Justin.tv, Socialcam shot to number one in the iTunes free app store. But that’s when the app started getting some negative attention from people like my friend Matt Holt, who stumbled onto it in his Facebook news feed, and described the app to me as, “...just confusing, to put it in a nutshell.”
Holt was confused because suddenly, his feed was full of messages revealing how his friends were using Socialcam. In a pivot from Socialcam’s initial goal to promote video creation, it seemed most discovery of the app was occurring as people were using Socialcam to watch videos. “Just the most random stuff you could think of, like ‘Three-year-old Laughs For Five Minutes Straight’,” he said. “None of which I cared about until I saw that one of my friends that I used to skate with a long time ago had watched a skateboarding video of Kerry Getz.”
Holt’s friend hadn’t shot that video of the professional skateboarder’s stunts. Many of these Socialcam videos being watched and shared on Facebook were actually viral videos from the web, and some users didn’t understand they were broadcasting this viewing activity, which made them feel duped. When I asked Socialcam’s Michael Seibel about their complaints in mid-May, he said the sharing function was easy to turn off. Later, in an interview with Yahoo, Siebel said this auto-sharing problem was a bug that had been fixed. But besides the auto-sharing, there are other functions of the app that aren’t obvious to users, as Matt Holt found when he clicked on that skate video.
“I’m not exactly sure how it all happened,” he said, “but in order to watch the video I had to get the app, and all of a sudden I was a Socialcam user.” In truly viral fashion, the app affixes itself to your Facebook profile when you click on a video that someone else has watched on Facebook using the app. This is how apps like Socialcam leverage Facebook’s massive user base.
Mike Isaac, Senior Editor for All Things D, was tracking Socialcam and Viddy and other mobile video apps that showed user counts that shot into the millions on one day in early April. He and other tech bloggers were suspicious about Socialcam’s sudden visibility.
Isaac said it looks like Facebook began promoting social video apps so they would appear more frequently in its newsfeeds. ”Facebook does not want to come out and say, ‘We are the ones that can make or break your app.’ They have all the traffic, they have all the power of being able to send people to you, but they don’t want to look like they’re playing favorites.”
I spoke to a Facebook spokesperson who (predictably) attributed video apps’ popularity to algorithms that adjust what users see, depending on whether they like the app’s content. Isaac points out the social media giant is still figuring out new revenue streams. Apps like Social Cam could be in the running to be the next Instagram, “…and even if they don’t know how to monetize it in the beginning,” he said, “(they) can’t ignore how many people are using it.”
Socialcam has lurched ahead of the pack. But other social video apps are still appearing in Facebook’s newsfeed. They’re all helping Facebook better understand what users want to do on its platform, and what’ll make them spend as much time there as possible.