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The evolution of Facebook Live
01:52 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Facebook Live has only been widely available for less than a year

Teens recently used the platform to broadcast the torture of a man in Chicago

CNN  — 

In April 2016, when Facebook Live was presented to the masses, there was an immediacy – and an ironic intimacy – to the platform. On one side of the screen, you could reveal the smallest details of your life as they unfolded, while on the other side, millions could watch.

Armed with this technology, we immediately lurched towards the absurd. Buzzfeed exploded a watermelon, and 800,000 people tuned in. In May, millions of people watched a woman in a Chewbacca mask laughing uncontrollably in a Kohl’s parking lot.

But in the months following Facebook Live’s debut, the pendulum swung sharply from silly viral stuff to serious subjects like police shootings and terrorism. Some live broadcasts became tools of activists and criminals, of the very best and worst of us.

Now, in the first week of 2017, a video showing a group of teens torturing a young man became the platform’s latest broadcast of horror.

It only took a few months for Facebook Live, which offers a vast audience of 1.8 billion monthly active users, to go from exploding watermelons to torture videos. How did we get here?

These were some pivotal and shocking moments that have helped define the fledgling platform.

April 2016: An exploding watermelon

Facebook Live actually launched in limited form in August 2015 as a way for the site’s biggest users (celebrities and other influencers) to connect directly with their audience. When it was released to a wider base, people didn’t know what to do with it at first. One of Facebook Live’s first big wins was Buzzfeed’s 45-minute broadcast of two people stretching dozens of rubber bands around a watermelon until it burst.

May 2016: A baby’s birth

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Whoops! Husband live-streams son's birth
01:45 - Source: KCRA

With any new technology, there are some growing pains. And sometimes, there are labor pains. A California man accidentially live-streamed his son’s birth, allegedly thinking he was just recording it to show later. The surprise hit perfectly tested the boundaries of Facebook Live: How intimate could we be, and how viral could we go? The answer to both questions was quickly established: Very.

May 2016: A Chewbacca lady

Could someone become famous on Facebook Live? No one has gotten closer than Candace Payne, a Texas mom who rocketed to viral fame after posting a simple video of her laughing uproariously in a Chewbacca mask. The video earned wide acclaim and led to an appearance on James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke.” As of 2017 her video has more than 165 million views.

READ MORE: The Chewbacca mask and the power of viral joy

June 2016: A tool of terror

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Police commander killed in France terror attack
02:27 - Source: CNN

After killing a police commander and the commander’s partner in Magnanville, France, a 25-year-old Islamic extremist took to Facebook Live at the scene. He confessed to the terrorist act and threatened more violence. It was a reminder that such an immediate form of communication carries inherent dangers. As the killer praised ISIS on camera, the slain couple’s 3-year-old boy, still alive, could be seen behind him.

July 2016: A police shooting

A police officer points a gun through the window of Philando Castile's car window.
Philando Castile shooting aftermath streamed live
02:40 - Source: CNN

The police shooting of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, marked the moment Facebook Live shifted from an information and entertainment platform to a tool of citizen journalism. The video, recorded by Castile’s fiancée as he lay dying beside her in a car, sparked widespread grief and anger at a time when police violence was at the forefront of the national conversation.

READ MORE: Facebook live video offers new perspective on police shootings

July 2016: A violent punishment

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Mom beats daughter live on Facebook
01:12 - Source: CNN

Last summer another disturbing Facebook Live trend seemed to emerge: Now that people knew they could go viral on the platform, such fame became an aim and not just a consequence. A video of a mother beating her daughter, facilitated and promoted by the mother herself, caused controversy. “Now, I’m gonna need y’all to send this viral, please share this,” she says in the video, after slapping and hitting her crying daughter.

November 2016: An overdose

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Heroin addict watches himself hit rock bottom
02:52 - Source: CNN

As a heroin epidemic spread across the country, citizens and police tried whatever they could to inform the public. Law enforcement shared disturbing pictures and videos from overdoses, and one father even filmed his son’s reaction when he learned his mother had died from an overdose.

On Facebook Live, one of the most shocking overdose videos wasn’t shared with such a serious purpose. It showed a man and a woman unresponsive and splayed out on the grass in Memphis, Tennessee. The person filming the video – which garnered more than 3 million views – laughs and makes fun of the catatonic couple, who are clearly in the thralls of an overdose.

Ronald Hiers, the man in the video, told CNN that seeing his overdose broadcast to the world was the lowest point in his life. But its viral fame also brought an unexpected benefit: Hiers and his wife, Carla, were both given scholarships to attend rehab.

January 2017: A horrific beating

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Gruesome attack broadcast on Facebook Live
01:24 - Source: CNN

There are innumerable disturbing things to behold in the recent Facebook Live video of a young Chicago man with special needs being bound, cut, kicked and taunted while his captors laugh and hurl racial insults. One particularly sobering detail is that the young woman who is filming the torture also turns the camera on herself, apparently aware that what she is filming will be seen and that her “fans” will willingly watch and comment on the scene in front of her.

This leads to one of the biggest questions about the future of Facebook Live: Does it embolden people to act out for an audience?

In the case of the Chewbacca mom or the exploding melon, the platform demonstrates its value as a showcase for affecting personal stories or entertaining gags. But in the hands of people with more insidious goals, it’s also becoming something far more dangerous.