'Socialcam' Tries Redefining Video On Facebook

The sudden popularity of the Socialcam app for posting video on Facebook is raising questions about whether the social networking company is playing favorites with what content gets featured.

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After Facebook acquired the mobile photo sharing app Instagram for $1 billion, the talk in Silicon Valley turned to a new video sharing app. It's called Socialcam. The app has emerged as an alternative to YouTube and other video apps. And after going viral on Facebook, the startup was bought last month by design software company Autodesk. Reporter Nishat Kurwa of TurnstyleNews.com has the story behind Socialcam's rapid rise.

NISHAT KURWA, BYLINE: It seems there's no shortage of user-generated video being shared on the Internet, right? Those caught-on-camera moments of everyone - cops, cats, babies - are in healthy circulation on YouTube. But only about 4 percent of those YouTube videos are mobile videos, recorded on and posted by a smartphone.

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KURWA: Maybe that's because it hasn't been easy to make and post great video from your phone as I discovered at this hip-hop, jazz show. I wanted to record the band's performance of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on my phone, but 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 until hours later. Where's my instant gratification?

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MICHAEL SEIBEL: When you're using the Socialcam app, there's literally a big silver button. The second that you are inspired, you can take your first video.

KURWA: That's Michael Seibel, CEO of Socialcam. The social video app is trying to address the pain points of sharing phone video. This spring, 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.

MATT HOLT: It's just confusing, to put it in a nutshell.

KURWA: Matt was confused because suddenly his feed was full of messages revealing how his friends were using Socialcam. And an awful lot of his Facebook friends had been using Socialcam to watch videos.

HOLT: Just the most random stuff you could think of - a three-year-old laughing for five minutes straight - 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.

KURWA: Matt's friend hadn't shot that video of the professional skateboarder's stunts. Most 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, he said the sharing function was easy to turn off.

SEIBEL: You know, in our first version we did try to make it pretty obvious.

KURWA: 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, like when Matt Holt clicked on that skate video.

HOLT: I'm not ever sure exactly how it all happened, but I think in order to watch the video I had to get the application, and all of the sudden I was a Socialcam user.

KURWA: 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: Essentially, on one day in April, the user count for Socialcam and for Viddy and for three or four other mobile video apps shot up into, like, the millions.

KURWA: Mike Isaac is a senior editor for the tech news site All Things D. He and other tech bloggers were suspicious about Socialcam's sudden visibility. Isaac says it looks like Facebook began promoting social video apps so they would appear more frequently in its newsfeeds.

ISAAC: Facebook does not want to come out and say we are the ones that can make or break your app, right? You know, 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.

KURWA: A Facebook spokesperson attributed video apps popularity to programs 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 Socialcam could be in the running to be the next Instagram.

ISAAC: And even if they don't know how to monetize it in the beginning, you can't ignore how many people are using it.

KURWA: Socialcam has lurched ahead of the pack, but other social video apps are still also 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. For NPR News, I'm Nishat Kurwa.

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CORNISH: Nishat Kurwa is a reporter for Turnstylenews.com, a project of Youth Radio.

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CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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