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Chewbacca Mom Is Just the Beginning

On May 19, Candace Payne, now better known as “Chewbacca Mom,” live-streamed herself on Facebook as she tried on a Kohl’s brand Chewbacca mask. Three weeks later, she’s received a free trip Disney World, driven around with J.J. Abrams and James Corden, and collected what could amount to $400,000 in scholarships for her kids.

It’s been a whirlwind month, and it all started with an infectious laugh, a smartphone, and a new version of Facebook—one that threatens to upend the traditional landscape of how content flows on the internet.

In the past, Facebook posts rarely went viral. That’s changing, and Chewbacca Mom is the most high-profile example yet. As Facebook continues to transition away from a social network and becomes a content network in order to attract advertiser money, as I’ve argued previously, creating the conditions to foster viral hits like Chewbacca Mom is a top priority.

At the core of the transition is Facebook’s native video player, which has grown exponentially since its launch back in 2014. Before, Facebook was a space to post clips from YouTube and other video services. Now, external clips from YouTube and elsewhere are “freebooted” onto Facebook’s native video player, which has all but neutralized the effectiveness of referral links. The native video player has also given rise to its own forms of content such as BuzzFeed’s incredibly popular Tasty and Handy channels, which have shown that 60-second videos that don’t require sound fit perfectly into the Facebook feed.

The ability to embed those native videos on other websites, possible since May 2015, is also critical. In the past, you could only see the posts if you were signed into Facebook—meaning that Facebook was more of an insular network compared to more public platforms like Twitter and YouTube. Now it’s much easier for media companies and other websites to include Facebook native videos within posts, like we’ve done above. The less effort it takes to share, the better your chances of going viral.

Facebook has also courted celebrities, journalists, and high-profile influencers to build out the platform’s news capabilities. And like Twitter, Facebook even marks certain profiles as “verified” with a blue checkmark, including Payne’s.

Facebook Live, introduced last December, may be the purest expression of Facebook’s desire to attract publishers, influencers, and amateurs to create content directly on its platform. The live streams appear at the top of the News Feed, and they automatically archive as normal Facebook videos, which ensures that they live on once the streams end. Because they’re embeddable, media companies can easily share them. Thus, a complete amateur like Payne can now go viral on Facebook—something that previously would’ve happened on YouTube. (It also helps that the story includes two of the press’s favorite topics: Star Wars and Facebook.)

Of course, there are catches. Users can’t monetize Facebook Live and Facebook video just yet, so influencers and media companies don’t have much incentive to abandon platforms like YouTube that bring in revenue. The video feature also thrives on heavily inflated metrics. YouTubers and other video talent eye Facebook with suspicion, to say the least.

But Facebook’s scorched earth video strategy is only beginning. Recently, the company partnered with Activision Blizzard, one of the biggest gaming publishers in the world, so players can log in to their extremely popular games on Facebook and seamlessly stream their play directly to Facebook Live. In other words, it’s Facebook’s first move to compete with Twitch and YouTube, where video game content dominates.

Facebook sees advertisers moving highly lucrative TV budgets to digital platforms like YouTube. If Facebook wants revenue to continue growing, it (and seemingly every other internet company out there) needs a large slice of that pie. With these changes, Facebook created an environment for that to be possible.

With Payne’s joyous laugh, the first viral Facebook video star was born. Don’t expect her to be the last.

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