The Implications of Facebook’s Instant Articles

Instant Articles = Instant Upgrades

An act of benevolence?

It sounds perfect: with Instant Articles, publishers’ content will load up to 10x faster than a mobile web article–no more 8 seconds of that dismal gray loading screen and subsequent abandonment by impatient readers. The articles will look sleeker than ever, as publishers are provided with “the same tools that an app developer has”. There is no need to learn sophisticated techniques, for Facebook has paved the way with simple codes. The same basic formatting of the original news site is used, but simplified to best fit a mobile device. Users can zoom into photos, comment within articles, and instantly watch embedded videos without even clicking. Any revenue from ads within the article goes straight to the publisher, and should the publisher turn to Facebook to manage advertisement through their Audience Network, the publisher receives a whopping 70% of the profits. News organizations are also receiving access to Facebook’s massive audience, so millions of new eyes will be scouring their speedy, shiny stories.

The articles were first proposed last fall as a promotional service. They were then launched on an experimental basis for the iPhone only in June, after partnering with nine large publishing corporations: Buzzfeed, The New York Times, National Geographic, The Atlantic, NBC News, The Guardian, BBC News, Bild, and Spiegel Online. Hearst, CNN and Time Inc. are planning on joining the fun soon. Before agreeing to the partnership, Buzzfeed made certain Facebook cooperated with various conditions, including compatibility with its quiz formats and specific analytic tools. Facebook obligingly agreed. And as for the companies that do not choose to partner with Facebook? Not to worry, no special treatment will be given to Instant Articles in users’ News Feeds. Equality for all.

….Or so it would seem

Fancy features and lightspeed loading times were not designed out of concern for a struggling publishing industry. These improvements were implemented to boost Facebook’s user experience. The company has already found that speed can change everything, as proven by skyrocketing ratings following the 2012 iOS relaunch. Ultimately, this efficiency means that people will not have to leave Facebook to read news, increasing time on the app and decreasing time on other sites. Just how far can they take this? How many tweaks and adjustments will be made to Instant Articles in the name of user experience?

Just think about Zynga, a company that would be nowhere without Facebook, but was also thwarted by its savior in response to cluttered News Feeds, shifts to mobile devices, and user dissatisfaction. While Facebook claims that no special treatment of Instant Articles will be allotted in News Feeds, the faster loading times will mean increased clicks, views and shares, therefore more presence on News Feeds than slower articles built on the increasingly archaic mobile web. This will pressure other publishers to join for fear of losing ground to those participating.

While Facebook’s service does grant access to a massive audience, publishers are slowly relinquishing ownership of their brands in exchange for this–as if Facebook needs any more control over web traffic. One study revealed that 88% of millennials get their news from Facebook, and the company is even surpassing Google in some avenues. Facebook referrals to Buzzfeed articles outnumbered Google’s in 2014. This is not surprising, as Buzzfeed was more or less designed for social media promotion, but it is still a testament to Facebook’s pre-existing prevalence in the information services industry.

Brand Devotion or Social Media Promotion?

Tentative Handshakes

The New York Times relies largely on digital subscriptions, but how long will those last now? The efficiency and accessibility of Instant Articles could lead to an increased preference for brevity, decreasing the number of deep readers and subsequently, digital subscribers. Another major revenue source is, obviously, online advertising. Despite permission to advertise within Instant Articles, many publishers fear that Facebook will become the main destination for news rather than their own sites, so as readers on the main site decline, so will advertisements.

The current publishing partners are not oblivious to the possible dangers of this arrangement. James Bennet, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, claimed to be particularly cautious about the deal, as it meant allowing another company to control distribution means of his own. Executives of Bloomberg, AOL and Evolve Media also voiced apprehension on the matter.

Initially, the urgency to either join or fall behind makes sense. However, over time, once everyone has joined, the competition will even out once again, except this time it will all be beneath the umbrella of a single company. At this point, the majority of digital news will be dependent on its effect upon user experience. Some skeptics have pointed out that while Facebook may not blatantly censor any content, its algorithms have the power to do so indirectly. Content will have to be regulated as a part of quality control.

At this point, who is to say that Facebook won’t decide to alter its terms? And with a solid foundation of loyal readers and publishers dependent on Instant Articles for the majority of their article views, who would fight back?

A switch to Instant Articles means publishing companies will no longer adhere to the standard procedures of social media marketing rendered obsolete by Facebook.

Lose ownership? Or lose readers? Facebook has presented an ingenious ultimatum that will likely deliver them a monopoly over digital news and mobile browsing in general. Should this occur, freedom of the press will have effectively been caged.