Flowing Between Formats

When Articles Transcend Their Words


Facebook has finally taken the wraps off its imminent publishing tools, and the result is a slick package dubbed Instant Articles, a new way to post stories to the world’s largest social network. As the name suggests, the emphasis for the format is on speed, with lush layouts and glossy interactive elements loading in a fraction of the time users are accustomed to when typically tapping on a link. This means, the thinking goes, publishers like The New York Times, Buzzfeed, and National Geographic are able to capture greater engagement and have readers spend more time with their stories — without ever leaving Facebook.

The wider implications for journalism of Facebook’s move toward being a highly social publishing platform continue to be debated, and considering the terms of the deal, it’s something I plan to expand upon further before the May Challenge ends. As a starting point though, I think this quote from Chris Cox, Facebook’s Chief Product Officer, given during an interview with The Verge about the genesis of Instant Articles and its predecessor, Paper, is fascinating.

‘Pixar spends a lot of time building these short films where they can develop technology that they can then apply to their longer films,’ he says. ‘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.’

This particular quote stands in for two reasons. First, it immediately reminded me of this gem from Palm’s then-CEO Ed Colligan when speaking about the mobile phone space back in 2006. “We’ve learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone. PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in.” Technology firms didn’t, in fact, “just walk in” to the mobile phone space, but spent years testing the waters and building a superior device that competed on user experience. The result was Apple’s iPhone. Facebook, with Instant Articles, has applied the same approach to publishing.

National Geographic’s first post using Instant Articles has a distinct feel and a variety of interactive elements (Source).

In the same vein, Cox’s quote not only invokes the spirit of iterative innovation we’ve come to expect from Silicon Valley, but also the continued blending of various media formats to create new experiences. Instant Articles are unlike other posts on Facebook, and elsewhere on the web for that matter. They use the power at their disposal to breakdown and remix the elements that make up articles into something unique, albeit proprietary. In the same way that Pixar must understand even the finest details and nuances of characters, stories and settings so that they may be recreated inside of machine for the sake of a movie, so too does Facebook with the film, photographs, and the written word in these posts.

Publishers and journalists’ strengths lie in the assembly of a story, the business of sourcing, fact-checking, and writing it all. For decades, that business used to also include the stories’ distribution. Now the packaging, display and consumption of it all has become the bigger story. Though Facebook is not alone on the far side of the smiling curve, Instant Articles, should they prove popular, could help the social giant establish yet another beachhead in the war for attention, engagement and revenue. The handwringing over that contention is sure to continue, but only a few days after launch, one thing is certain: Facebook first film is a masterpiece.