Instant thoughts on instant articles

So we’ve seen the future of news — and it’s really fast.

Facebook’s instant articles arrived yesterday to much fanfare and no little trepidation from the traditional media industry — worried that an already difficult market has a new dominant player.

Several of high-profile publishers including the New York Times, BuzzFeed, the BBC and Bild, are being given the opportunity to publish content directly into the new format.

The ‘instant articles’ load directly in your Facebook app. Facebook has apparently offered to let publishers keep any revenue from ads they sell, while offering a revenue share on the rest.

No more slowly loading pages inside an in-app web browser and — to the terror of many publishers — potentially no more clickthrough visits to news sites.

So, in the spirit of instant articles, here are some quick thoughts on what it all means:

1. It’s really fast

When the first instant article was published, I thought I’d try to compare an ‘instant article’ with the same link shared via Twitter and I shot this video:

Simple conclusion: Facebook sold instant articles by saying they were all about improving loading speed and they’ve delivered.

(Some people have rightly pointed out that this wasn’t quite a fair test. I hadn’t realised one of my friend’s phones was on wi-fi and the other on 3G. It’s also comparing two completely different methods of content loading. Nonetheless, I think it still stands as an illustration of two different user experiences.)

2. It looks great

So Facebook has created a beautiful mobile product. You can see it’s been made by the team behind its Paper app. There’s autoplaying videos, clever tilting galleries, sliding galleries, audio picture galleries. In short, lots of shiny toys to get publishers excited. It reminded me a little of the Shorthand platform which publishers have been dabbling with to produce premium long reads.

Of the articles I glanced through, I thought BuzzFeed (perhaps not surprisingly) had made the most of the new format.

(You have to see this inside the Facebook iOS app to experience the clever bits of this article.)

There was lots of scrolling around, it felt very interactive— and really worked with the personal nature of touch on your phone.

3. Native changes the Facebook experience

This was something I hadn’t expected. The speed of loading wasn’t the only thing that was noticeably different. Instant article pages scroll quickly, pictures load seamlessly, and there’s no distracting navigation.

On one level, this is great. But I am so used to getting my news through web views opening in Facebook and Twitter that a native view, for me, felt a bit jarring, almost un-Facebook like.

It left me with parts of my Facebook experience being slick and native, while other bits were a bit more like the link platform I was used to. A couple of times I scrolled past an autoplaying instant article in my news feed thinking it was an ad.

I’m be honest and say I’m not sure I was completely sold on first impressions, although perhaps I’m a bit like the record collector who keeps pining for the comforting crackle of vinyl, while the world is busy streaming Spotify.

It does, however, leads me on to the next point…

4. Is Facebook now a publisher?

This has already been causing a lot of media anguish. Does offering only selected media organisations access imply some kind of editorial selection rather than platform neutrality? And if there is a revenue share, isn’t that effectively commissioning content? It seems more difficult to argue that content potentially published only one place is simply a matter of distribution not publication.

Some of this is arguable but many users already see Facebook as a publisher without suffering damage to its reputation. How many times do you hear: “I saw that on Facebook” not “I read it on the news website”.

Facebook will argue that these are “Facebook-hosted news sites”, not their own content. It can point out its algorithim isn’t editing actively selecting content, just giving readers more of what they want.

However, commentators such as journalism professor Jay Rosen have suggested that Facebook may need to become more accountable for their content decisions. He asks:

How do you see your role within a news ecosystem where you are more and more the dominant player? In news, you have power now. It is growing. Help us understand how you intend to use it. What kind of filter will you be? What kind of player… playing for what?

Where there is publishing power, then government and regulators like to get involved. Facebook, like YouTube and Google before it, may find it more difficult simply to act like a platform on the sidelines.

5. Facebook isn’t (yet) the perfect news platform

This seems an almost laughable statement. After all, up to two thirds of referrals to news websites come from Facebook. It’s the biggest news platform around. But I found it relatively hard to search out the new format articles. By the morning following launch, I hadn’t seen a single instant article shared by a friend onto my Facebook news feed.

(If you want to try it out, perhaps the easiest way is to open the Facebook iOS app and like the ‘Instant articles’ page)

Facebook’s primary purpose is to connect our social graph. Its algorithim is trying to balance showing my friends’ statuses and news items that I may want to consume. My friends are good at finding funny or entertaining memes for me to enjoy, I don’t think they are the best at helping me find breaking news or digesting the latest headlines.

There are other really interesting products such as Twitter itself, SnapChat Discovery, Nuzell, New York Times Now and the forthcoming BuzzFeed news app, which may offer more attractive news experiences.

7. There’s going to be losers

It was noticeable that one of the reasons why instant articles load so fast is that they aren’t weighed down with (many) served digital display ads.

The first tranche of instant article partners tend to have other methods of raising their income.

The BBC is, of course, paid for through a taxpayer subsidy. The New York Times, The Atlantic and National Geographic all have some form of subscription, while BuzzFeed has its ‘advertising as content’ model.

Clearly there’s a lot of worried publishers around. They recognise that two thirds of the referrals to their websites come from Facebook. They worry about surrendering the relationship with their advertisers to Facebook. They wonder whether Facebook will be an honest broker in the future or drive an increasingly tough deal. They fear it might even penalise those publishers who chose to say no.

Instant articles make things look bleaker for those publishers who depend on selling digital display advertising.

8. And winners…

Perhaps the best piece I’ve read on this is by the analyst Ben Thompson. In the Facebook Reckoning, he makes the point that many news publishers are currently trapped in a vicious circle. There is a huge oversupply of display ad inventory. The more adverts these sites publish, the greater that oversupply and the lower the price those adverts command. He says:

You need compelling content of consistently high quality. Notice, though, that that is precisely the opposite of what most online publications have focused on: in their race for ever more content and ever more clicks most publications have lowered their quality bar and made themselves uniquely unsuited to making money on mobile.

If Facebook can get the incentives right, it will reward sites that produce premium differentiated content that users want.

These publishers can concentrate on building a content service on top of Facebook’s social graph, avoiding the expensive technical and commercial overheads.

Everyone concentrates on what they do best. Instant articles are a significant move in that direction.

Publishers might eventually end up concluding you can’t beat Facebook, so you’re going to have to join it.

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