Why it’s impossible to put Snapchat’s 6B daily video views in context

The last few weeks have seen a handful of massive social services announced measurements for video views that reach into the billions. But those figures are actually far less impressive (at least right now) when you consider the value of each view.
For instance, Snapchat users watch a collective 6 billion videos every day. That seems like a lot, especially when compared against the 8 billion videos watched by Facebook users and the 7 or 8 billion videos watched on YouTube in the same time period. Snapchat doesn’t have nearly as many users as those services, so if it’s coming close to their videos-watched tallies, its users must be moving picture fanatics.
That said, there is some discrepancy between what each of these services counts as a video being watched. As the BBC reports, Facebook only charges advertisers if a video is watched for more than three seconds; YouTube does the same after 30 seconds; and Snapchat charges advertisers if a video plays for less than a second. Apparently these companies can’t even agree on what “watching a video” means.
Those are just the numbers that determine when an advertiser is charged. While advertising is the lifeblood of these services — though each also has other ways to make money, whether it’s ad-free subscriptions or offering in-app purchases — that doesn’t always line up with what the companies focus their attentions on. YouTube touts the number of hours its users spend on its service each day, for example, while Facebook emphasizes how many videos its users are watching.
Then there are the differences in how the videos are presented to their viewers. Facebook automatically plays videos that appear in users’ News Feeds (as long as those users haven’t disabled auto-playing videos in the service’s settings) so it could tally up videos that no-one is paying attention to. YouTube and Snapchat, on the other hand, don’t play videos until their users signal their desire to do so.
Facebook’s method has its fans. The Wall Street Journal reports that more companies reliant on videos are considering the addition of auto-play features to their websites. But automatically playing videos have their detractors, too, and some Web browsers have even introduced features that make it easy to mute obnoxious videos that play even though someone isn’t actually watching them.
This problem isn’t restricted to videos. Tech companies measure success in whatever metric suits them, whether that’s the number of people who have downloaded their application or the amount of in-app purchases those apps facilitate. There’s no widely-accepted definition; even something as simple as “active users” is presented in the way that most benefits the affected company.
Nor is this statistic favoritism restricted to tech companies. Publishers will often do the same thing: Some tout their pageviews, others their unique visitors, and still others the amount of time the average visitor spends on their website. These numbers are all calculated using different analytics tools that produce differing measurements. Objectivity in measuring the audience for journalism is dead.
All of which leaves reports on user growth, or increases in the time people spend on a site, or whatever metric is being touted limited to talking about changing numbers. Company X has Metric Y and that figure changed by Number Z. (Oh, which reminds me, the 6 billion video views Snapchat is touting is an increase from the 2 million daily views chief executive Evan Spiegel shared back in May.)
So there isn’t much sense in comparing the number of videos watched on Snapchat to those watched on Facebook or YouTube. The three services don’t just have different purposes — they’re also tallying things up differently. Until that changes (which is unlikely) the comparisons don’t mean that much.