Usually I do not intend to publish breaking news on meshedsociety.com. But what to do when a certain kind of newsworthy information just finds its way to you? As someone who has been covering tech daily for many years, ignoring it would feel like a big sin.
Although admittedly, most facts about this particular news have already been circulating as rumors. An open secret, so to speak. So here is the deal:
Facebook officially unveils today (Wednesday) that it will host “native” content from well-known publishers inside its mobile app (update: link to the announcement). The feature will go live with a couple of launch partners in the U.S. (among others The New York Times, National Geographic and The Atlantic) starting from today.
For the German market, the launch will happen in a few weeks, starting with two major publishers: Der Spiegel and Bild. Other international media brand that are partnering with Facebook for the “Instant Articles” feature are The Guardian and BBC.
Instant Articles receive their own dedicated space inside Facebook’s app (initially only on iPhone) in which text and interactive content is presented full-length and in full-screen mode. No clicks to the publisher’s website are necessary. Videos are set to auto-play, including ads. Publishers can bring their own ad inventory, in that case they keep 100 percent of the revenue. Or they can let Facebook sell ads, in that case the social networking giant gets a cut of 30 percent.
I also learned that the Instant Articles feature has been developed by the same team that was (or still is?) in charge of an app that Facebook released a while ago, called Paper. While Paper failed to get traction, but many of the learnings from the development and user feedback surrounding Paper have been used to shape the new functionality.
Now the big question: Will this effort be a success? Personally I would not bet on it. The Facebook app has lost a lot of its appeal and probably even some of its initial users, who spend more time with Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp etc (which of course all are owned by Facebook). So while this is an attempt to increase the original app’s attractiveness, it remains unclear if users will care enough. Snapchat Discover which conceptually has similarities to Instant Articles, has been getting a lot of attention when it launched, but later reportedly began to underperform.
What’s more clear is that many people from the publishing industry will not like this move, even though the level of hostility could depend on how much data publishers are able to get out of this deal. In any case, by being the major traffic provider of many big media sites, Facebook already acts as quite a gatekeeper. With each change to the news feed algorithm, the company heavily impacts and influences the flow of visitors to media websites. By letting a few selected sites put their content right inside the Facebook walled garden, the company tries to significantly modify user behavior, by asking users to stay “inside” Facebook instead of visiting external links. Publishers themselves give away yet another part of their independence.
Personally I have not fully decided yet what to think of Instant Articles. I first want to try it out and see whether reading longer content on Facebook has habit-forming potential. And more importantly, I will wait and see whether other people even use it. If not, then there is no need to worry. If yes? Well, then even more massive changes are coming to the publishing industry. On the other hand, isn’t that the status quo right now anyway?!
Update: TechCrunch has published a lengthy article including a video showing Instant Articles in action.
Update 2: After having been able to try it out myself (with this article), I realize that the success of this feature from a user perspective is pretty much guaranteed. Since Instant Articles are a natural part of the news feed experience and deliver a quite superior experience (because they look nice and load, well, instantly), there is little to dislike for users.
I also created a little video showing that Facebook’s claim of much faster load times cannot be questioned (of course this is only possible because the article content is pre-loaded in the background):
I just compared opening a Buzzfeed article on Facebook's iPhone app vs iPad app (Wi-Fi). pic.twitter.com/Wfd6N5oVaY
— meshedsociety.com (@meshedsociety) May 14, 2015
It took me a day since publication of this article to realize that the fact that I am working with a news curation startup could be considered a conflict of interest. I do not think that my view on Instant Articles is biased, but for transparency reasons I wanted to add this disclosure.