Social media has hugely transformed the way we consume entertainment, and very recently we’ve seen widespread adoption of autoplay video across all the biggest social media sites. This notorious feature has attracted much frustration and concern over its intrusiveness, but, as Digiday writer Eric Blattberg puts it, it’s only becoming more ubiquitous.
Facebook implemented autoplay internationally in mid-2014, and one need only type “Facebook autoplay” into Google to gauge user opinion of this:
News media companies justify their use of autoplay claiming that since the current online climate favours transmedia storytelling, video is often integral to their content. But I still don’t see how this necessitates autoplay: I see the video is there, that you’ve decided it’s important enough to sit atop the article, now let me decide if I want to watch it.
Call me paranoid, but I find the idea of the internet deciding for me what I want to watch not only annoying, but deeply unsettling. Autoplay may seem like a small thing, but loss of autonomy is not.
That said, websites can continue to do this because users would rarely click away from a page if a video starts auto-playing: we’re already on the page, so the most we’d do is just kiss our teeth, pause the video, then continue hunting the content we’re after.
In the case of social media, there really is no justification. The motive is crystal clear: to boost views. Recently Youtube implemented continuous autoplay and Instagram has followed suit. Continuous autoplay is the absolute core of Vine. At least on most platforms there’s the option to disable, and thankfully audio remains mute on most platforms until the user decides to turn it on. But it’s common knowledge (especially in advertising) that motion attracts the eye, provoking what marketers most want and what most annoys users: distraction.
For companies, while the price of autoplay is mild user-annoyance, the pay-off is massive view-count inflation. Needless to say, Facebook’s decision to embrace autoplay prompted a staggering increase in video views. The site currently facilitates over 4 billion video views daily (excess of three-seconds counts as a view).
Peer Schneider, general manager at IGN (who often feature autoplay on their website) defended the inevitability of the future omnipresence of autoplay: “On TV, when one program ends, another starts, and users accept that experience [emphasis mine]. The Internet started as a newspaper, but now it’s turning into TV.”
The day we give up interaction with the web beyond switching it on and off—watching continuous autoplay vids in-between—is indeed the day the Internet turns into TV. Imagine that hybrid platform: the power and capability of the web stripped of user discernment… it positively stinks of infinite jest.