I first encountered autoplay as a teenager on Myspace, and I hated it. I'd visit someone's page only to be immediately assaulted by whatever music they liked without warning. I figured we were past this aggravating aspect of web design a decade later, but I was wrong—autoplay video is taking over.
Facebook first implemented autoplay video in 2013 with native videos—that is, videos uploaded directly to Facebook, instead of linked from Youtube. Twitter followed suit and announced last week that it is beginning to test autoplay video for some users.
Your feeds are filling up with videos that automatically start playing as you scroll down feed, sucking away your precious data as you desperately click it to stop the pain as quickly as you can.
Where is the push for autoplay native video coming from, I began to wonder? Are legions of people emailing Twitter and Facebook support begging for it? The numbers suggest the answer is "no." In a 2013 Mashable straw poll, 82 percent of respondents—that's 8,227 votes—said that they either hated or disliked autoplay video on Facebook.
When I put the question to Twitter users this week, I got similar responses. The folks who cared enough to respond said they "hate" them, and the emails I got expressed the same feeling. One email simply read, "I don't like them." Another said, "Casting my vote for hating autoplay Facebook videos!" Clearly, many people are not fans of autoplay on social media. (Of course, not everyone thinks this way, especially regarding sites explicitly for playing video like Youtube.)
"It's a cheap opportunity for video plays"
So, why implement it? The likely answer is that it's great for advertisers aiming to pump up their views, and for the platforms that charge them for the privilege. On the publisher side, hosting your video on Facebook also means more views thanks to autoplay. Facebook even has guidelines for publishers to optimize their video content for autoplay.
The advertising and viewership imperative is explicit in how Facebook talks about autoplay video. In a December 2013 blog post, Facebook announced that it would begin rolling out autoplay videos for marketers' native videos, starting with digital marketing firm Mindshare. "Through the course of [tests in September]," the post stated, "we've seen a more than 10 percent increase in people watching, liking, sharing and commenting on videos."
These benefits are shared with advertisers who signed up to use autoplay video on the site. According to Armin Huska, Mindshare's chief digital officer, autoplay is indeed a boon to marketers, but only at the cost of user experience.
"It's a cheap opportunity for video plays, marketers love them but the price is user annoyance," Huska explained in an email. "Funny enough, most publishers started to rebrand the ad-format to avoid uncomfortable conversations and now call it 'native video.' There is nothing native about it. The only native action would be a user-initiated click to play the video."
How do you meet advertiser demands while not pissing off your users too much?
Huska said that while Mindshare still does autoplay video if their client asks for it, and if the campaign calls for it, he personally "hates" autoplay and would rather not use it. While it does pump up video views, it's simply too annoying for people that use the site.
Twitter has been tight-lipped about its motivation for testing autoplay video, but it's safe to assume that the company has reasons similar to Facebook's—brands and agencies often ask platforms to deliver not just engagement from users, but for tons and tons of views. The question for Twitter now is, how do you meet advertiser demands while not pissing off your users too much?
Teasing apart that question is likely why Twitter is testing both full-on autoplay, where videos play in full as you scroll by, and "auto preview", which only plays a teaser. Hopefully, advertisers will get what they want, and users won't flee the platform in droves.
But is any of this actually good for users? "[Autoplay] means poor usability, poor accessibility, poor ad experience. Especially when the sound is enabled at the same time the video plays," Huska said.
So, why is autoplay video still a thing? It appears as though it's being pushed into our lives by advertisers and the platforms that partner with them because it means more ad dollars for them. Because of this, unless you plan on moving to another platform—but will you, really?—we'll all probably just have to put up with autoplay.