Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced major changes to the social network’s algorithm. “You’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands and media,” he wrote in, predictably, a Facebook status. “The public content you see … should encourage meaningful interactions between people.”
Less than two weeks later, longstanding comedy video website Funny or Die made another round of redundancies, after laying off roughly 30% of its staff in 2016. The website’s CEO, Mike Farah, vented his frustration, tweeting: “There is simply no money in making comedy online any more. Facebook has completely destroyed independent digital comedy.”
Farah argues that because it receives so much traffic, creators now post content directly to Facebook, rather than elsewhere online. “There’s no reason to go to a comedy website that has a video if that video is just right on Facebook,” said Farah in an interview with Sidesplitter. “Because Facebook does not pay publishers, there quickly became no money in making high-quality content for the internet.”
So does this mean professionally made online comedy will become a thing of the past? Is the idea of a video going viral dead? And is Facebook really responsible?
Comedian Luisa Omielan thinks so. “Facebook, to me, is becoming unusable as an artist or a creative,” she says. Three years ago, a video of Omielan’s standup went viral on the social platform, and has now racked up 41m views. “The algorithm wasn’t as intense as it is now,” she says. “When I first started standup, I created a page for comedy, and initially it was fine, I’d post about a gig and it would reach my audiences. Now, they [Facebook] limit any post of mine about anything comedy-related, so it might be seen by, like, 100 people when I’ve got over 200,000 people following my page.”
With a post’s reach being stifled, users are encouraged to “boost” their content, with Facebook charging the creator to show their post to more fans of their page. “That video that got 45m views? I don’t get any revenue from that,” says Omielan. “Yet Facebook gets revenue from me because I have to boost things to promote it within my own page.”
Facebook had been instrumental in helping Omielan find an audience. The same goes for Mo Gilligan AKA Mo the Comedian. He started posting videos two years ago, and millions have now seen them. “Facebook used to be about sharing your life stories,” says Gilligan, who’s now in the middle of a major tour, “but after the introduction of videos, people shared topical stuff, shared comedy, which has obviously benefited me.”
Not only has Facebook introduced Gilligan to a new audience, that audience has been introduced to standup itself, says the comic. For some people at his shows, “it’s their first time at a comedy gig,” says Gilligan. “And my videos have reached other countries. If I’d just been gigging at comedy clubs on weekends, people in Australia wouldn’t have been able to see my comedy.”
Ultimately Facebook is a business, says Tom Walker, creator of faux-news reporter Jonathan Pie. “You were never going to make money out of Facebook,” says the actor-comedian, who became a viral sensation in 2015 when his character’s expletive-ridden “off-air” rants were shared across users’ timelines. “The way I realised I quickly had to ‘monetise’ it is to sell tickets to my live show; have a product that people have to pay for.”
When Walker is spending time and money writing and filming original videos that get millions of views is it fair that he doesn’t receive a penny of advertising revenue? Yes, he says. “We think of Facebook as a service; we have a right to it because we use it so much. No, actually! If they turned around and said, ‘Actually, it’s a tenner to be on Facebook now’, they’re perfectly within their rights to do that.”
In recent years, more traditional broadcasters such as the BBC and Comedy Central have been creating content specifically for Facebook and social media as they race to keep up with the shift in how people consume content. That’s where a new wave of content creators are excelling. Take LADbible, one of the web’s most prominent social video publishers. With 63 million followers on social media, half of those through Facebook, its video views top 3bn a month.
That success is down in part to the company’s social-first approach to content, says its head of communications, Peter Heneghan. “You can’t just copy and paste comedy that worked on TV and expect it to work on Facebook,” he says. “When consuming content on your daily commute, you’ve probably only got a matter of seconds rather than minutes to view your newsfeed – you’ve got to create the content to work for that.”
But when Facebook isn’t sharing its ad revenue, how do those billions of views translate into cash for a company like LADbible? One method is through branded content. LADbible has its own creative agency, Joyride, which has collaborated with brands such as Amazon and Netflix to make comedy content. “Facebook is also a very good way to tease content and drive audiences to your website,” says Heneghan.
Of course, Facebook isn’t the only place online to get a funny fix. Turtle Canyon Comedy makes original scripted series, available to watch for free, but largely avoids posting directly to Zuckerberg’s platform. “If you’ve got the budget to pay for views, Facebook is a good way to get impressive-looking stats very quickly,” says Stuart Laws, comedian and co-founder of Turtle Canyon Comedy. “It’ll push it into people’s timelines, it autoplays immediately, and that counts as a view. So the stats look like you’ve had 30,000 views, despite 20,000 of them being three seconds or less.” Turtle Canyon’s output includes sitcoms, documentaries and prank shows, many with well-known faces. Only occasionally, says Laws, does it “put stuff up on Facebook that we think could have organic spread, like shorter sketches”.
Another comedy production outfit that rarely hosts on Facebook is Blink Industries, which makes surreal animated online hit Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. Charlie Perkins, its development producer, says the biggest worry about Facebook’s dominance is its potential for making comedy more homogenous. “Content that works on Facebook is broader and more clickbait-y,” she explains, “and if people use Facebook as their one feed for everything, then the comedy they see is going to perpetuate what people think comedy is. It will be treated much more as entertainment than art form, which would be an enormous shame.”
Perkins argues that producers and creators shouldn’t kowtow to what Facebook defines as “shareable”, but stay true to their creative ideals. “We should be championing alternative platforms,” she says. “We shouldn’t be defeatist, there are so many places that you can make amazing stuff, and that’s only going to increase in tandem with Facebook growing. Or not growing, as it seems – there was a stat recently that it lost 2.8 million users under 25 in 2017. That generation can smell advertising a mile off. So it’s not all doom and gloom.”
Walker says its possible people will revert back to YouTube as the main platform to showcase their work. “I do wonder whether the party’s over on Facebook,” he says.
Laws has another theory. “I think one potential future of commissioned comedy is with the people who own the data. Specifically, ticketing agencies. They’re the ones who know the tastes of everyone in the country, and then they can go to brands and say, ‘We know that 1.25 million people would like to see a TV show featuring this person, and we’ve got direct access to those people – now give us the money to make it!”