The Dark Side of AutoPlay Video by Douglas E. Welch from New Media Interchange Episode 19

Originally from New Media Interchange 19…Subscribe to the Podcast

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The Dark Side of AutoPlay Video from New Media Interchange by Douglas E. Welch

On a much darker side of new media, this week, many users of social media were forced to watch the murder of 2 television news workers. How could thousands of people be forced to watch something so gruesome? Through the technology of autoplay  video that has been so rampantly pushed by many of the powerhouses of social media including Twitter and Facebook.

For myself, one of the chief tenants in my online life is that I get to chose what stories, what pictures, what video comes into my life. I chose who I follow on social media and engage, regularly and deeply in what I call Social Media Self Preservation. With the advent of autoplay video, though, I lose a large amount of control over what I bring into my new media life.

Immediately after the murder occurred, a variety of people, including the murderer himself, posted video of the even online. Anyone scrolling through their social media streams watched a video begin to play that many wish they had never seen. They didn’t seek out the video. They didn’t click through on a news story or thumbnail. It was thrown in their face regardless of their actions. Even as someone unrelated to the participants in any way, I was deeply affected by this video, as most would be. Video is terribly intimate, even at great distance. I can only imagine the horror and disgust of the families, friends and co-workers of these people, if and when this video was forced on them. I can only imagine the deep pain they felt to have their personal tragedy forced on themselves and others – and it was “forced.” The images simply appeared without any desire or action on their part or the part of countless new media users around the world.

What amazes me most, though, is how to it took something so gruesome, so abhorrent to jumpstart the conversation on how useful – and abusive — autoplay video can be. Since technology began, there has always been a question as to “Just because we CAN do something, does that mean we SHOULD do something.” Autoplay video clearly falls into that discussion. Is there any real, compelling reason that video should begin playing, with audio or without, as we scroll over it? For the average social media user, I would say no. There is no benefit to them at all. In fact, not requiring action on their part, takes control away from them and exposes them to content they would rather not see.

So, who benefits most from auto play video? The online services, of course. While not deeply monetized on Facebook or Twitter yet, video on those services is the next big market for advertising. Of course, advertisers want to see large numbers of viewers on videos where they place their advertisements and auto play video is a great way to increase — I might even say, inflate — the number of views of videos. Autoplay video has nothing to do with improving user experience and everything to do with improving the bottom line — no matter what the consequences, as this event has shown.

That fact is, I am amazed it took something as horrific as this to finally start the conversation about the possible problems with autoplay videos. Since it was first instituted, I have been exposed to much I would rather not have seen. This includes everything from cruel pranks to varying levels of jackassery with people getting hurt or embarrassed to gruesome videos of animal abuse and more. This type of content made me immediately recognize the flaws, and outright dangers, found in autoplay video. Haven’t we lived with live television news and live streaming to know that there are certain things that should not be shown live for the the sake of those directly involved and the psyche of those forced to watched?

To be clear, I am not talking about the censoring of this type of content, but rather simply providing an opportunity of agreement and requiring direct action on the the part of the viewer before such content is shown. Give us the opportunity to say “No” to content that we don’t wish to bring into our lives.

This is the main reason I stopped watching television news several years ago. I couldn’t easily manage what content I brought into my life each evening, so I used the only power still remaining to me — the off button. Social media services need to realize that their users still have a similar choice in their online lives. Offend them often enough. Annoy them often enough. Mentally burden them often enough and they, too, will use the off switch — the only power remaining to them.

There is so much good that new media can bring to our lives, but we must recognize and actively combat the evil it can do. There are times when we must forgo the possible monetary rewards and do the right thing. We must take the best that new media has to offer and then clearly recognize and minimize its worst. As Lincoln said, we must seek out “the better angels of our nature” in both our offline and online lives and insure we limit the evil we are forcibly exposed to. In some small way, turning off auto play video — or at least giving people the choice to turn them off — is a place to start.

Do you feel there is a danger in auto play video and how it might be abused in the future or is forced viewing of tragedies simply a part of modern life? Leave your comments on the blog, email them to or send via Twitter to @NMIPodcast.

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