Facebook is beginning a rollout of its new format, named “Instant Articles”, a series of fast-loading stories from big publishers – Buzzed to The New York Times – which load on Facebook’s mobile apps up to 10 times faster than standard articles. The Instant Articles, which are hosted on Facebook’s servers, are designed and built for a better mobile experience than the average 8-second load time.
If the format become the de facto way to publish across social media, and Facebook continues it dominance over online news, publisher, independent and otherwise, could find themselves becoming ever more intertwined in a platform they have zero control over. Those worries may be valid, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of big names from signing on. That may mean that many smaller publishers could feel that they are left with no option but to sign up. Either way, Instant Articles is likely to be a turning point in the evolution of Journalism.
Instant Articles will come online for nine select publishers starting early May. It’s like a who’s-who of Social Media Journalism: BBC News, NBC News, National Geographic, BuzzFeed, The Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Bild, and Der Spiegel. On rollout, you’ll only be able to see Instant Articles on the iOS App for Facebook, with an Android version still in the works. Instant Articles may not even look much different from links you’re used to seeing on Facebook, but to make sure you can see a difference, Facebook has ways to make them stand out; from corner icons to autoplay video covers.
A Turning point in the evolution of Journalism
Once you tap an Article, it loads almost instantly. Well, it did for the handful of stories Facebook let you test in a small demo. The app does this by using the same protocol it uses to get photos and videos to load pretty quickly; it begins pre-loading the article as you scroll to it in your News Feed. That makes it able to show you the top of the story as soon as you tap. Inside the World Wide Web, publishers usually fill articles with code for serving ads and analytics; Instant Articles strips all that out.
But if you expect Instant Articles to be basic boring blocks of text might be surprised at the features Facebook has built-in: Publications get a logo space on top of each article, complete with a ‘follow’ button to encourage subscribers to get to a publisher’s Facebook page and more articles. Publishers can choose to include author’s Facebook photos at the top of articles – helpful for photography blogs. The body of the article can contain photos, galleries, videos, tweets, and even interactive graphics.
“A New Platform for Publishers”
Facebook has built-in some special interactions for Instant Articles and are actively working on more. For example, Photos can narrated, allowing a verbal caption for stories. Photos can be geo-tagged; tapping a location opens up an interactive map. Users can even like and comment on individual photos inside stories, giving them a higher chance of moving around your social network.
The result of all these features is that Instant Articles is more than a new way to open links: it’s a new platform for publishers. And publishers are taking it very seriously.
A growing influence
Facebook’s homegrown ambitions as a news platform have grown so slowly, most people missed the memo. Currently, nearly one-third of all Americans get their daily news from the Facebook App, according to the Pew Research Centre. On its journey to this milestone, Facebook has become a channel of choice for distributing media, creating new audiences for small media companies, and helping them build themselves into billion-dollar companies.
“SPEED IS THE MOST IMPORTANT FEATURE FOR ANY MOBILE SOFTWARE.”
In the survey by Pew, people said they don’t actively seek out news on the Social Media giant, but they see a lot of it, and that in turn makes them use Facebook more. The more links we clink, the more Facebook’s algorithms show us links we might like. Facebook, for its part, sees a problem with this. Notably, it can take 8 seconds for a link to load in a mobile browser; not long, but an eternity in the Social Media generation.
“Speed is the most important feature for any mobile software…Photos, text, video. We keep learning the lesson that if it’s not delivered instantly, you’re losing a bunch of the goodness that could have happened.”
– Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer.
By getting rid of the lag time between tapping and reading, Facebook thinks people will spend more time in the News Feed, reading news. While Facebook has yet to run a formal test of this theory, Chris Cox says employees usage results have been ‘encouraging’
Work on the Instant Articles format began almost six months ago, helmed by the team behind Facebook Paper, an attempt by Facebook to build an app for news. Paper relied on interactive gestures – swiping up, tilting the phone – made it more of a curiosity than a favourite app, and many people didn’t get on board. But Paper was the begining of Instant Articles.
“Pixar spends a lot of time building these short films where they can develop technology that they can then apply to their longer films…For us, Paper was like a short film that let us explore a lot of things without the constraint of, a billion people need to be able to use this.”
– Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer.
What Will The Future of News Look Like?
While Paper languished, Facebook was gaining in popularity as a distributor of news, and that created new ways to build revenue. Starting on launch, Instant Articles publishers can let Facebook sell ads on their articles, splitting the revenue with Facebook. Alterntavily, publishers can choose to sell ads themselves, keeping revenue for their own. At least for now.
“We’re committed to working with publishers in a way that gives them tools to build their business…We’re going to work with publishers to give them tools that build their business,”
– Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s Vice President of Media Partnerships
It’s not untrue to say that Facebook explored the idea of hosting news, not out of a desire to bolster independent journalism or inform the publish, but rather maximize the amount of time users spend in the News Feed.
The prospect of Facebook, for example, as a primary host for news organizations, not just an outsized source of traffic, is depressing even if you like Facebook. A new generation of artists and creative people ceding the still-fresh dream of direct compensation and independence to mediated advertising arrangements with accidentally enormous middlemen apps that have no special interest in publishing beyond value extraction through advertising is the early internet utopian’s worst-case scenario.
– John Herrman, Author of Content Wars
That being said, and in the interest of full disclosure, the financial efficacy of IONS, and to an extent our parent company, Human Element, are going to be affected by Facebook’s wading into the publishing pond. Although we are not a partner – yet? – Human Element has talked to Facebook and are working, as are many small publishers, incorporating Instant Articles requirements into our content. If Ions adopts Instant Articles, and they become the de facto method for social media content, Ions could benefit financially. If we don’t, however, Ions could suffer very much.
The calculations involved around journalistic buoyancy, revolve around risk, revenue, and what the future of journalism might look like. These are variable that are impossible to pin down right now. However, it is an exercise in arithmetic every publisher of every size – Human Element included – is trying to understand. The variable of Instant Articles comes down to this: Facebook is already a bigger deal than Google at referring traffic. Failing to get this math right could mean the closing of our, and other’s journalistic doors.
Instant Articles is a risk
The last note about Instant Articles is about how they feel inevitable. Some small publishers have suggested that Content hosted on apps instead of websites is the future. They are wrong. It’s the present.
In September of 2015, BuzzFeed created BFF: a 10-person team creates images, video, tweets and more for content on the major social media networks. Nothing actually goes back to BuzzFeed.com. Currently BuzzFeed doesn’t advertise on its social media networks, but becoming kings on Facebook and the like, and building huge audiences will let the company develop native ads for those channels. And they’re not alone.
You’ve no doubt encountered NowThis, a digital social media based video service, backed by the Huffington Post. They are not only huge on Social Media, they don’t even have a homepage. Seriously. Click this. The outlet specializes in autoplay videos on Facebook, built from the ground up to be watched without sound. The stories and ideas are told via text, laid over news footage and memes.
Distributed Media on social media is still experimental. Facebook has made it feel inevitable. Small Publishers may be worried about Facebook’s amount of control are easily understood, but perhaps overstated. One notable pattern of Instant Articles, THe New York Times, was withstood huge changes in the media landscape over their 150 years. They approached their Facebook with unshakeable confidence in the platform
“Our experience has been when you grow your off-platform audience, generally, you grow your on-platform audience as well,”
-Mark Thompson, President, The New York Times.
Facebook has made it feel inevitable
In an interview with Re/Code, Mark Thompson pointed out the obvious: the Times also had deals with AOL and Yahoo. They also survived. 10 years after AOL, dire warnings about the death of journalism arose as Google began creating Google News. In all cases, everything turned out as well as it can in Journalism: great people still manage to tell great stories in unique ways, and advertisers still pay to reach audiences, and, yes, many Journalists even get paychecks.
If you are on the fence about diving into Instant Articles, Thompson had a last parting shot of advice:
“My starting assumption…is typically you’re better playing the game.”