Of all the cutting moments of this season of HBO’s Silicon Valley, one stands out among the rest: When the mythologically genius programmer Richard Hendricks has been recruited to work on a very serious, top secret new skunkworks project. Hendricks is excited at first. Then he learns it's an app that adds a variety of different mustaches to your face—just like a Snapchat filter.
This week, as Facebook unveils a new series of augmented reality filters that allow you to celebrate the Rio Olympics by adding one of nine different flags to your face—the result of acquiring the augmented reality startup MSQRD earlier this year in a high-profile bidding war—Silicon Valley’s mustache filter gag hits closer to home than ever.
Why are companies like Snapchat and Facebook investing so much technology into silliness like rainbow vomit filters? According to Tory Hargro and Alex Cornell, two designers on Facebook Live—Facebook's live-streaming video platform—the answer is a lot less silly than you think.
"The metaphor we like to talk about is that of a live theater," Cornell says. "Imagine that, you’re broadcasting live, and you’re on a stage of any size—up to a million people. But if you think about that metaphor, and what would make it more exciting or easy for someone to perform on that stage for people, props would help. If I could have a costume, that would make it more interesting. Those kinds of ways we can enhance people’s ability to be creative with the medium—those are always going to be interesting to us."
The real difference between theater and Facebook Live is that Facebook is filled with a bunch of everyday people, rather than actors. We have the urge to overshare, and yet, we don’t always know what to say or do when we begin streaming, and if we aren’t comfortable, we might not use the service at all. So these "creative tools," or digital props, are a design solution to bring out our inner Carrot Top. They’re, quite simply, something to play with to laugh and be laughed at by your friends.
But the theater metaphor works for another reason, too: Much like social media, theater is a medium that’s reactive to its audience (in a way that, say, movies or YouTube clips are not). "Actors on stage are responding to what the audience is doing. If I go to see Hamilton, [creator] Lin-Manuel Miranda might decide to put a pregnant pause in a [scene] based on the audience response. . . . If you extrapolate that into the future [of Facebook Live], you’ll see a progression of that two-way interaction being our guiding principle, our focus going forward."
This latter point, about the power of two-way interaction born from props, was inspired from an unlikely source: Chewbacca Mom (Candace Payne), a woman who went viral after laughing at her own reflection wearing a Chewbacca mask in her car.
"We had her at the office, and we were talking about her experience with Live, what made it special. She surfaced a story I don’t think was reported on. In the video she goes through this situation [with the mask] and she laughs and laughs again. She’s obviously seeing herself in the video, so default selfie mode comes into play there, but what was more interesting was what she was really reacting to: Her friends were utilizing Live Reactions," says Hargro, alluding to the one-button emotes that allow you to respond to a live streamer. Apparently, one of Payne's friends—a friend who never laughs at any of her jokes—reacted with a laugh, which sent fireworks across Payne's screen. "That’s what made her rear back in her seat, she was like, ‘I finally got that person to laugh!" continues Hargro. "We understood [then] there are underlying social dynamics: People are there with you."
Not only are people with you, but they influence your performance. Facebook and Snapchat filters are a means and excuse to play off the crowd, to be Chewbacca Mom or Lin-Manuel Miranda for a few minutes to a few friends. And yes, as Silicon Valley so pointedly illustrated, there is a massive amount of investment going on now to make that prop-based social dynamic possible. Because it is our lighthearted counterpoint to the far more serious, and often depressing side of Facebook Live, as a 24-hour uncensored news source.
It's not that there's anything wrong with serious topics on Facebook. It's that too much serious content can quickly Debbie Downer the slow-burn, cat-video-filled family reunion that Facebook is built to be. This fine line Facebook must walk each day is evident in the company's recent move to actively downplaying itself as a news service only shortly after announcing its intent to inundate your feed with news articles. The company's new priority was its old priority: targeting you by targeting stories posted by your friends and family.
As a result, we have Facebook's new Olympics filters, the option to express national pride through augmented reality face painting for all to see—one of countless simple props that will inevitably be available through the MSQRD app to help soften the seriousness of Facebook Live, make our friends and family laugh, and above all else, keep everyone tuned in for optimal engagement.