FOMO & Dopamine: Why Facebook Live Is Thriving

The FOMO is real.

FBLiveBlogI’m always fascinated by what happens behind the curtains at theatre productions. Everything appears so smooth and effortless, without a hitch. On the inside? I can only imagine there’s tension — misplaced costumes, broken props, & chaos. The barrier between audience and consumer is really nothing more than an illusion to make the process feel seamless. Tailor-made. It’s a concept that lends well to the likes of video production. The chaos, the outtakes, the flaws — they’re all concealed in post production. The chaos is felt by the editor and no one else. The audience is delivered a polished product with an orchestrated storyline developed behind the curtain. The emotion felt by the audience is often the one they are manipulated to feel. But now, social media consumers are ripping down that curtain.

The paradigm of content consumption is shifting, and the driving force is live content. Snapchat’s success accustomed content consumers to the idea of raw, unfiltered creation. Facebook Live elevates this concept to a new level — so much so, in fact, that Facebook now considers Live Video to be a separate type of content from standard video. The classification as such comes from a careful analysis of consumption behavior, and, as a result, Facebook is evolving the way it determines what is the most relevant content to place atop a user’s News Feed. Early on, Facebook ranked a video in the News Feed based on how many people watched the video and for how long they watched. Now, they’ve determined that “certain actions people take on a video, such as choosing to turn on sound or making the video full screen, are good signs they wanted to see that video, even if they didn’t choose to like it.”

Facebook has discovered through initial data that “people comment more than 10 times more on Facebook Live videos than on regular videos.” And people are watching these videos for longer too, spending “more than 3x more time watching a Facebook Live video on average compared to a video that’s no longer live.” Findings like this leave Facebook no other choice than to adjust the News Feed algorithm and give preference to Live Video, placing it higher in the Feed when a video is currently streaming live footage.

But… why? Why is it that people are gravitating toward live content? The answer is simple. It’s in our nature. 

We fear missing out. We crave suspense. For a Millennial generation that is highly skeptical of institutions, live content is a breath of fresh air, serving up unfiltered content that is stripped of any manipulation or deception. What is seen is what is true. Unscripted.

Psychologist Susan Weinschenk acknowledges the culprit: dopamine. Social media has programmed us into a state of instant gratification. We turn to Google for instant answers. We text a friend with the expectation of an instant response. What happens as a result is that we fall into an infinite dopamine loop. We start seeking information because of dopamine and then achieve the reward of finding the answer which ultimately makes us seek more. And more. And more. Interrupting this behavior of seeking and being rewarded is unnatural because it feels so good. Live video creates an environment for instant reaction and instant feedback — an environment rich with dopamine.

Interestingly, brain scan research, according to Dr. Weinschenk, indicates that “the brain has more activity when people are anticipating a reward than getting one.” She mentions that research on rats demonstrates that destroying dopamine neurons lead rats to die of starvation despite being in the same proximity as food. They didn’t starve because they couldn’t eat (they still possessed the necessary motor live-reactions-androidcapacities to walk, chew, and swallow), they died because they lost the anticipation and desire to eat. Other research indicates that the dopamine system doesn’t have satiety built in, meaning we are hardwired to keep seeking out information even when we’ve found the answer for which we were initially searching. The journey is more rewarding than the destination. Structurally, Facebook Live and the uncertainty of a content’s destination generates the anticipation we crave. While a standard video production is produced to draw forth a certain intended emotion, live videos are less predictable, allowing the viewer to enjoy the unpredictable pleasures of dopamine while anticipating what might happen next. The anticipation envelopes a broad range of potential emotions: shock from a realtime blooper; awe from a world record-breaking feat witnessed firsthand; or anxiety from a high-speed chase broadcasted by the news. Yet, in the end, there may be no blooper and the record attempt might be failed. But that chance is what keeps people watching: The Fear Of Missing Out.

FOMO is another psychological phenomenon hardwired into our brains. Our survival as a species is attributed to being “in the know,” says psychologist Anita Sanz. Life and death could be determined by unawareness of a nearby predator or not knowing the location of a food source. When we don’t know, we get anxious. That anxiety then drives us to search for answers, and many times that search drives us to impulsively check and re-check our social media profiles out of fear that we are missing out on something we ought to know. So we gravitate toward live video because it quenches our thirst. When we can’t experience something firsthand, live video feels like the next best thing. Family birthday parties or football tailgates can be experienced — at least in a way — from a distance.

At least for now, Facebook Live is a force to be reckoned with, and it’s our challenge to harness the power of live video to dish out that dopamine.