Facebook is rolling out its Instant Articles feature, which hosts editorial publications’ stories directly on the social network’s platform. The feature sees the articles that live within Facebook loading immediately when tapped. The editorial organization behind the story can add audio captions and zoomable videos, features that are supported by Facebook’s app, but would never work in a mobile browser. While the experiment is small to start, launching with articles from just nine media companies, it signals a new milestone for Facebook and a mobile-precipitated shift in the way news publications interface with their audiences.
Claire Cain Miller reports for The New York Times that the Instant Articles program isn’t just about page views, advertising revenue, or the number of seconds it takes for an article to load. Instead, it’s about who owns the relationship with users. Newspapers, magazines, and even website homepages have lost their ascendancy as users’ destination of choice when reading the news. Instead, users happen upon articles, videos, photos, and graphics one at a time, and often on social networks like Facebook.
Facebook’s executives have insisted that intend to exert no editorial control over what articles appear by leaving the makeup of the News Feed to its algorithm, which is infamous for its ability to send publications huge amounts of traffic, or reduce their referral traffic significantly, when the engineers behind it implement changes. The algorithm is unpredictable, as are readers. And Miller notes that in the same way that tech companies have come to regard one another as both friends and competitors, “news organizations now view Facebook the same way.”
Josh Constine reports for TechCrunch that a few years ago, Facebook’s News Feed was filled with links that led to content hosted elsewhere. But in an effort to give users everything they need within its platform — and cut out the load times and extra clicks they’d need to access content elsewhere — Facebook has slowly been making it easier for you to stay on its platform to complete tasks you’d otherwise need an array of other apps and websites to complete.
Constine notes that this all started in 2007, when Facebook introduced Pages, which let businesses represent themselves inside Facebook in a uniform format that put basic information at users’ fingertips, without needing to Google. Pages became a huge source of content as community managers began creating status updates, photos, and links to help and entertain fans on the social network. And Pages gave users another reason to stay on Facebook instead of turning to another website for information.
However, even as Pages took off, much of what came up in users’ News Feeds amounted to previews of and links to content elsewhere on the Internet. The problem for Facebook is that when users click away, they might not come back. So the company began making changes.
YouTube videos that you had to click to play slowly disappeared from the News Feed with autoplay videos that users upload straight to Facebook; they play without ads and play automatically as users scroll by. Autoplay videos launched in December of 2013, and by September of 2014 hit 1 billion views per day. By January 2015, they reached 3 billion, and have surpassed 4 billion now. Constine writes, “Facebook had the proof it needed. People wanted it to absorb the Internet.”
Facebook users can find news stories relevant to a timely topic via the social network’s Trends pages. You can get receipts from your online orders in Facebook Messenger thanks to the Messenger for Business program, which also enables you to contact customer service through the chat app. You can create or participate in forums with Facebook’s Rooms app, or create collaborative videos with Riff. And the utility of the apps Nearby Places or Nearby Friends is, at its most basic, self-explanatory.
Facebook’s Buy button enables you to make a purchase directly from an ad in the News Feed, without having to navigate to another site or to enter your shipping and billing details each time you want to make an impulse purchase. And Facebook’s ads themselves use your personal information, interests, web history, and purchase data to figure out exactly what you’re likely to want to buy.
Constine argues that news is the last thing for Facebook to optimize. Take it from Facebook product manager Michael Reckhow, who told TechCrunch, “We have gone through and optimized and sped up all the core experiences of using Facebook: loading News Feed, loading photos, loading videos. The last thing that takes a long time to load in your News Feed is articles.” Constine considers Facebook’s Instant Articles program “the culmination of Facebook’s quest to absorb the Internet.”
Facebook dominates referral traffic for many sites, and some get more traffic from Facebook than they do from Google. Publishers have become dependent on Facebook, and competition to be seen in the News Feed is growing faster than the attention that users pay to it. That’s causing a natural decline in the reach of Pages, which threatens publishers’ referral traffic. The algorithm that powers the News Feed has much more content to choose from than it can actually display, and because Facebook’s Instant Articles feature gives publishers a chance to stand out, they’re willing to give it a try rather than risk being left out.