How to Go Live on Facebook and Instagram Without Boring Everyone

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If you value your friendships, think twice before hitting that 'live' button. (Sam Thomas / iStock)

It’s happened to us all in the last few weeks. There you are, scrolling through Instagram minding your own business, when that little pop-up window appears, informing you with some urgency that an account you follow is going live. Without even thinking, you click it, only to find yourself in a dark virtual room with a human you met in passing at a party three years ago. And they’re reading Moby Dick to their cat.

Since shelter-in-place orders came down, the uptick in live events on social media has been a double-edged sword. The people rushing to fulfill our increased desire for virtual social connection fall into two clear categories: those who strive to deliver, whether it be through interviews, music, comedy or instructional classes. And those who simply phone it in—the folks that go live while cleaning their kitchens, or sitting on the couch eating snacks, or casually chatting to their spouse in a directionless manner. All of which pose awkward etiquette conundrums for the rest of us.

“Unless you are Beyoncé, going live just to go live is probably a terrible idea,” says Carly Severn, KQED’s senior social media strategist. “Surprisingly early on in this shelter-in-place, I didn’t dare touch the top third of my phone’s screen for fear of being catapulted into somebody’s jam session. Or worse—their two-glasses-deep Q&A.”

Under the current conditions, for every nice surprise—last Saturday, I spent an hour “two-stepping in the kitchen” to a mood-lifting DJ Jazzy Jeff set—there is a sigh-inducing disappointment. Like the Bay Area record store that went live over the weekend, camera zoomed in on decks like a DJ set was imminent, only to throw on a David Bowie album and wander off. (They know we can all just do that ourselves with YouTube, right?)

“The point of what makes a good live broadcast hasn’t really changed,” Severn explains. “Everyone doing this stuff should absolutely still ask themselves, ‘What do I want to achieve here, who am I doing this for, and why would they want to watch this?’ And they should unplug their router until they’ve asked themselves those questions.”


It’s not just non-famous folks putting out dull live content either. As a die-hard Broad City fan, when I saw that Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer were broadcasting live together on Sunday night, I rushed over to the feed expecting some much-needed hilarity. Instead, I was greeted by the sight of Glazer flossing and then brushing her teeth, while the women discussed the minutiae of their days without a thought for anyone watching. Jacobsen even repeatedly stated that she kept forgetting that thousands of other people were there. (We probably shouldn’t have been.)

Ilana Glazer brushes her teeth while Abbi Jacobson and nearly 4,000 other people watch on, bored out of their minds.
Ilana Glazer brushes her teeth while Abbi Jacobson and nearly 4,000 other people watch on, bored out of their minds. (Instagram @abbijacobson )

At least with famous people though, it’s easy to duck in and out of a live feed at will. When it’s someone you know, and there are only a handful of other people watching, the stakes are both higher and a lot more awkward.

“As with a real-life party, leaving an online event when you’re one of two attendees (or when your departure will be noted) is a tricky beast,” Severn says. “Even if you’re leaving just because you’re so bored you want to cry, I recommend leaving a short and sweet parting message before virtually hightailing it out of there. If you get really desperate, pull the plug and follow up after, pleading internet trouble. Note: Do NOT overuse this excuse!”

Lina Blanco, digital engagement manager for KQED Arts, believes the key to engaging live content lies in the following:

  1. Showing folks something unexpected;
  2. Making people feel acknowledged and seen, and;
  3. Asking questions of people tuning in and reading out their responses.

Severn agrees. “The best live-goers are attentive, proactive and responsive, and also relaxed and happy,” she says. “The warmth and humor you get from watching folks who really enjoy talking to each other makes the audience feel like they’re there too.”

As we all learn to navigate the new normal, mistakes are bound to be made. But it should go without saying that having a captive audience doesn’t magically make banal content exciting, or everyday activities more interesting to watch. If you value your friendships and want them to survive social distancing, think twice before hitting that live button. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.