Facebook’s Instant Articles: damned if you do, damned if you don’t

About 18 months ago I wrote a piece arguing that Instant Articles was Facebook’s way of saying it understood today’s internet better than any of its competitors. Finally, it seems some media are beginning to realize that they cannot survive without Facebook.

Venture Beat’s article, “For publishers, Facebook is the devil” highlights the media’s dilemma. With an audience of 1.8 billion around the world, Facebook is now the only way to reach an increasing number of users who now use it less to see updates from friends and family and much more to read the news and submit to content recommendation algorithms that make them feel they are informed and up to date.

Instant Articles is a weapon of mass seduction: Facebook, knowing that more than a billion people around the world only access it through mobile devices, says: “give me your content, let me put it on my servers so as to get it onto mobile devices more quickly and looking more attractive so you can increase your reach and even integrate your trackers to keep track of your audience, as well as your advertising. If as a result of the move, more users see your advertising and make more money, congratulations: Facebook does not ask for any commission in return. In fact, it only does so if you specifically ask it to provide advertising, in which case, it takes the industry standard: 30%. Free of charge, it will even allow you to use your layout, your logos, your style and other elements of your look within Instant Articles. That said, the banner is pretty much sidelined: as far as most readers are concerned, they have read the news on Facebook.

For most media, it’s pretty much a Don Corleone situation, or as the pub landlord likes to say: “my gaff, my rules”. But hey, where’s the downside? Well, for a start, Facebook once Facebook has seduced you, it will do with you what it wants. In just the same way a publication’s reach on the wall of a page kept declining until said page had to invest in advertising, with Instant Articles, Facebook has begun modifying its algorithms to change the mix between news and what friends have to say, which makes the media increasingly dependent on that algorithm.

Facebook’s approach is pretty straightforward: first, it lets a publication see how the system works on its own, with access from Facebook make up more and more of its traffic. Then, when it’s gotten used to that reach, it changes its algorithm to reduce the flow, using the excuse that users want more content from their friends and less news, which means that if a publication wants to keep the reach it had before the algorithm change, it has to invest in advertising.

As I often comment in my classes, Facebook is in the grazing business. Imagine Mark Zuckerberg sitting up on a hilltop, looking down on a herd of 1.8 billion sheep, deciding which direction to shepherd them by using algorithms. Facebook controls the traffic on its network, getting us to read this or that content based on its place on our walls, generating an illusion of free will, and then modifying that traffic flow, leading those who generate content to pay for advertising if we want it to reach the right people.

It really is a diabolical scheme, and one that leads the media to think that they cannot reach their audience without paying Facebook. The world’s largest media outlet does not generate content, it’s simply a platform that uses the content of others. It’s pretty much a perfect business model, one created by someone who understands how the internet works better than most.

Facebook is now the de facto key for media who want to reach their audience on the internet. It cannot be ignored, but letting it decide through its algorithms how many people you reach is surely not a good idea. In short, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

(En español, aquí)