This article was published on August 26, 2016

Autoplay video is a plague that can’t be stopped

Autoplay video is a plague that can’t be stopped
Owen Williams
Story by

Owen Williams

Former TNW employee

Owen was a reporter for TNW based in Amsterdam, now a full-time freelance writer and consultant helping technology companies make their word Owen was a reporter for TNW based in Amsterdam, now a full-time freelance writer and consultant helping technology companies make their words friendlier. In his spare time he codes, writes newsletters and cycles around the city.

We’ve all encountered autoplay video on the web, in one way or another. Thanks to Facebook, it’s become popular all over again with the company rolling out videos that play as you scroll past on both the core Facebook app and Instagram. Twitter also followed suit, as did many number of other apps.

The thing is… nobody asked for autoplay video. It’s a dark user pattern and it’s not something people ever desired or wanted – it only exists in pursuit of one goal: advertising dollars, or even more simply: stealing your attention back.

What’s interesting to me is that this isn’t the first go-around for autoplay video ads. They started life as nothing more than annoying banner advertisements and there are plenty of examples of how annoying those really were. Luckily, over time their popularity diminished, since they were rejected by Web users – and we’ve been able to use ad blockers against them.

Now that the “Web” has moved from the open platform it started as, into silos of apps, our time online is spent inside Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat’s closed-source apps; the conditions are perfect to bring back autoplay video simply because you, as a user, can’t ever get rid of them entirely.

Autoplay video came back from the dead simply because you really want to use Facebook, but there’s nothing you can do about what it shows in return because there’s no control in Facebook’s own app like there is in the Web browser. 

For some reason we won’t accept annoying, distracting ads on the Web, but when social media networks slowly rolled them out it gradually became the norm. That’s partially down to the fact that those advertisements are skillfully mixed in with real video content that you might actually want to see.

Of course, companies that use autoplay video argue that these aren’t really advertising: they’re personalized deeply to your profile, and since it’s surfaced it’s probably content you’ll really care about. But ultimately, it’s a bit more of a dark user experience pattern.

Autoplay videos inherently tap into a human curiosity, hijacking your thought process and distracting you from whatever you actually came there to do. I’ve seen this hundreds of times myself; as I scroll through my news feed, I suddenly find myself watching a video about how cotton candy is made and then jump from one to another for an hour.

There are hundreds of dark patterns all over the Web, simply because they tend to work extremely well. Tricking your users is a fantastic way to get them to buy your thing, view your video or click that button. Not only do such practices beef up your numbers which makes your boss happy, they also seem to help with conversion. There’s a whole industry that essentially thrives on this: “Growth hacking.”

The other problem with this brave new world of autoplay video? Well, those impressions are sort-of a lie. You might get a million views on Facebook, but what’s a “view” when most of your watchers drop off after the first twenty seconds? It’s nothing more than a fabrication and everyone knows it, but still willingly participates.

I understand the temptation of autoplay video and why it exists. Advertisers are increasingly looking for ways to win back what they’ve lost in useless banner ads, TV ads and outdoor campaigns. Video lets them get right in front of you, where they can measure every single thing.

This week there are rumors that Facebook – and others – are exploring autoplay videos that automatically play with sound. If it chooses to roll that feature out worldwide, Facebook is taking it to the next level: Catching your eye with motion is one thing, but if they’re able to use sound as well that’s a whole new way to capture your attention.

Most frustrating of all, it assumes consent. I only expect apps to play audio only when I interact with them, not as I’m just scrolling past in my feed. Assuming that my iPhone’s mute setting is correlated with consent for hearing audio is predatory at best, and an unacceptable practice to force on the masses.

Ultimately, autoplay video is an addiction for both sides, and I understand why it exists. It works! Everyone’s making a ton of money!

For social media companies and advertisers, they’re hooked: Video produces numbers they’ve never seen before, and rightly so, since it’s the ultimate way to grab your attention even if for a few seconds.

For users – people like you and me – we’re staring into the abyss of our feeds more than ever before, because we’ve created the ultimate slot machine in a billion pockets. And we’re the ones losing.

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