Technology

Facebook Live’s signal has never been stronger

Chris Cox, chief product officer at Facebook, held a Mevo camera with integrated Facebook Live streaming during the Facebook F8 conference in San Francisco in April.
Stephen Lam/Reuters/File
Chris Cox, chief product officer at Facebook, held a Mevo camera with integrated Facebook Live streaming during the Facebook F8 conference in San Francisco in April.

For many social media fans, this was the week that Facebook Live got real.

Ever since January, users of the popular social media network have been able to transmit live video from their smartphones to their online friends. For millions, Facebook Live is a way to broadcast a wedding reception, a vacation video, or a harmless political rant.

Then on Wednesday, Minnesota resident Diamond Reynolds switched on the free app and broadcast the death of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, who had been shot by a police officer moments earlier. The following day, as a gunman murdered five Dallas police officers, Facebook Live users broadcast shocking images of the massacre. The resulting videos have been watched millions of times online, and rebroadcast on traditional TV networks around the globe.

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Thanks to Facebook Live, nearly anybody with a cellphone can be a broadcast journalist. And this week’s tragic events prove that many people welcome the opportunity. Instead of rushing to save themselves, eyewitnesses grabbed their phones and shared their stories with the world.

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“I do think it’s a kind of watershed moment in terms of the democratization of media power,” said John Wihbey, an assistant professor of journalism and new media at Northeastern University.

Facebook Live’s moment is the culmination of years of technological advancement. The oldest of them, the personal video camera, already rocked the media world over two decades ago. In 1991, Los Angeles resident George Holliday used an old-school camcorder to capture the brutal beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. Shown on TV stations around the world, the video spawned a massive riot in Los Angeles that left 55 people dead.

But Holliday didn’t have a way to broadcast his video live to thousands of viewers, and then post it online so millions more could watch. That had to wait for the rise of the Internet, the birth of the smartphone, and the building of 4G cellular data networks capable of streaming high-quality video images.

Above all, there could be no Facebook Live without Facebook’s massive user base. The social network Twitter launched a video streaming service called Periscope nearly a year before Facebook Live began. But Twitter has 310 million users per month, while Facebook attracts a global following of 1.65 billion. As a result, “Facebook Live ... has a built-in audience,” said Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “To a large extent, everybody who’s online in the US is on Facebook.”

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The popularity of Facebook Live raises some knotty problems. For instance, how far can amateur broadcasters go in showing violent images? The video of Castile’s death is unusually bloody and disturbing, including scenes that traditional TV networks often edit out. Indeed, the video temporarily vanished from Facebook, which generally forbids the display of images showing graphic violence. Amid allegations of unjust censorship, Facebook restored access to the video, saying that it had been inaccessible due to a technical problem, not an editorial decision.

In a statement on his Facebook page, company founder Mark Zuckerberg described the images as “graphic and heartbreaking.” He added, “while I hope we never have to see another video like Diamond’s, it reminds us why coming together to build a more open and connected world is so important — and how far we still have to go.”

Still, Facebook reserves the right to pull the plug in extreme cases. For instance, last month, a French terrorist murdered two police officials, then broadcast a Facebook Live video describing his crime before he was gunned down by police. Facebook deleted the video.

Facebook Live’s biggest limitation is its lack of a program guide, an easy way to find broadcasts on interesting topics. Without such a guide, millions who might have wanted to see live video Dallas couldn’t get to it.

“You have to think that Mark Zuckerberg and his team are starting to think about that,” said Wihbey. “If this is going to become the most important broadcast channel in the world for live events, we’ve got to make sure that people can find them quickly and easily.”

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For many media companies — broadcast, cable, and Internet — this was the week Facebook Live got real.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com.