What’s the big deal? Facebook has given you the option to turn off videos from playing automatically on your page. Just go to the Settings and fix it…

That has been a response I have been hearing from a number of people (generally more geeky than not) whenever I have mentioned Facebook’s move to make videos play by default – something that happened a few days ago in India.


All right, time for a full disclosure: I know how to turn off videos from autoplaying on Facebook. I have done so on my phones and my notebook.

The issue is not that one can turn on the autoplay feature, it is that a lot of people do not know how to do so. And this can actually cost them money.

I know that many will start off with the “it is so easy, just go to settings” argument, but the stark fact is: a large number of people (and it is a staggeringly large number when you think of India) who use smartphones in the country are not comfortable with English as a language. Many don’t even know how to download Facebook, leave alone tinkering with settings on it. “Facebook laga ke dena,” (Please install Facebook and give it to me) is a request that smartphone sellers all over the country get on a regular basis. But yes, one thing that almost every Facebook user seems to know is that using Facebook “without Wi-Fi” costs money – we keep being told India is a price-sensitive market. “Office mein use karo. Bahar data khaata hai” (Use it in the office, otherwise it consumes data) are words of wisdom that are heard ever so often – ironic at a level because an increasing number of offices are trying to ban Facebook access at work (but THAT is another story).

No, I don’t believe that the video autoplay feature was part of some complex conspiracy involving telecom players and the company. However, ever since videos started playing by themselves, I have had more than a dozen people ask me to help them turn off the feature. And while a few of them were content to be told what to do, the vast majority insisted that I turn of the features myself on their devices because they did not really know what to do. One of these was a semi-literate person who works in Delhi as an ‘office assistant’ or as we refer to them, a peon. His sole purpose of being on Facebook was to see the pictures of his friends and family who live hundreds of miles away. He had tried Whatsapp too, but found Facebook better because of fewer notifications and because he could just see things and not be expected to comment. He has a prepaid connection on his rather basic Android phone and keeps recharging data in amounts that are generally in the vicinity of a Dollar. He uses nothing but Facebook on his phone, apart from calls and texts. He is not even on WhatsApp.

Well, he was actually very happy when the videos started playing by themselves (not least because someone had shared a trailer of a film he loves). And then panicked when he got a text informing him that the data pack that usually lasted him close to a fortnight was over in a couple of days. When I told him to go to settings and turn off autoplay, he looked at me blankly. No, he did not ask me to change the settings myself. I took his phone from him and did so – there is simply no way he would have understood.

And that for me is the real issue here. No, I am not questioning Facebook’s right to implement a feature on its app or site. Hey, it is THEIR site and app, after all. But I do think that in cases where such a decision could result in hitting the bank balances of its users, the Social Network could be a bit more considerate. Yes, turning off autoplaying videos is easy. But only if you actually are used to tinkering around with Facebook or are slightly geeky by nature. The vast majority of Facebook users in India is not. Most do not even know what a social network is – many just go to Facebook to see pictures of relatives, share devotional songs and see funny animals, food and cute babies, and oh, pictures of their favourite film stars. Which is why so many of them get tricked into clicking links that they really should not!

The bottom line is – those who do not want to watch videos should not be made to pay for watching them. The option to hit the Play button in the past put the decision in the hands of the user – autoplay does not. To be brutally honest, I don’t really know a single person who would want ALL the videos on their timeline to start playing automatically.

What makes Facebook special – and so amazingly popular – is its ease of use and accessibility. Take my word for it: if people had to go to settings and tweak matters frequently, The Social Network might not have attained the near-cult status it enjoys today.

We keep being shown statistics about how, if Facebook had been a country, it would have been one of the most populous in the world. Well, evoking that simile, that would make Facebook’s management equivalent to a Government, with each person opening an account equivalent to casting a vote in its favour. I ask you: is it fair for a Government to simply implement measures that might hurt the financial well-being of its citizens? The answer is not mine to give.

Turning off autoplay is easy on Facebook?
Try telling that to hundreds of people who don’t even know what an app is.
Many of them are not illiterate.
They just have never bothered to figure things like Settings out.
Because they trust Facebook to do what is good for its users.
Believe me, I know.
My mum is one of them.

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Nimish Dubey has been writing for more than a decade now (well, Windows 3.1 was around and Apple was on the verge of being finished when he started). He has been published in a number of publications including The Times of India, Mint, The Economic Times, Mid-Day and Femina on subjects that vary from tech write -ups to book reviews to music album round ups. He managed to interview Michael Schumacher once and write two books for young adults along the way.