Facebook recently launched “Instant Articles, a new way for publishers to create fast, interactive articles on Facebook.” According to Facebook, this new publishing platform is “Fast and Responsive – Leveraging the same technology used to display photos and videos quickly in the Facebook app, articles load instantly, as much as 10 times faster than the standard mobile web.” Initial launch partners include the New York Times, BuzzFeed, NBC News, National Geographic, The Atlantic, The Guardian, BBC News, Spiegel online and Bild.
The user experience is outstanding. If you haven’t tried it, visit Facebook Instant Articles right now. Do it from your iOS mobile device, because while Instant Articles may one day be great on a laptop or desktop or even an Android device, for now this is best experienced on an iPhone.
The initial launch partners are well incentivized. According to Adweek, they will get the analytics they need to help them sell ads on the platform and get to keep 100 percent of the revenue. If they have excess inventory, Facebook will sell it for them and take a 30 percent cut.
This is a surprisingly good deal for both publishers and Facebook. Publishers get a new, massive distribution platform and Facebook gets to delight its audience with excellent content and an equally excellent experience.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) mongers came out fast and loud about censorship. Facebook will now control the news!!! Really? Facebook does not create content. Its product is a platform that allows you and other users to upload content and create a community around that content. Then, Facebook exploits the data generated by you and the community you’ve created by selling the information to advertisers.
It would never be in Facebook’s interest to censor anything. That is not to say that the company does not have Standards & Practices that govern what it will and will not allow on Facebook. It does. But Facebook is not a news-gathering organization; it is a distribution platform. We can debate whether or not criminals, terrorists and hate mongers should be able to aggregate users and create communities on Facebook, but it’s not a freedom of speech issue. It’s a business issue.
Just to review, here is the actual text of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:
I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Just to be clear, the 1st Amendment applies to what words and ideas the government can allow and prohibit; it says nothing about nor does it apply to what private individuals or publicly traded companies can say.
In June 2012, Chik-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy generated headlines when he made his personal opinions about LGBT rights known. In response, boycotts were staged, licensing partners terminated their sponsorship deals, and petitions were written. It is important to note that many customers agreed with Mr. Cathy’s position and voiced strong support for it. All of this went on without any government intervention – that is the 1st Amendment at work. If Facebook were to censor anything, it would have to answer to the public and its shareholders – not the government.
Facebook Is Too Powerful
No. It’s not. It is an evolving business in a time of accelerating innovation. In a world of 2 billion smartphones and 4 billion Internet connections, competition for attention is fierce. Facebook is doing its best to stay relevant and be valuable to every user. Yes, Facebook has over 850 million unique monthly users; television has billions.
On the other hand, Facebook has one of the best content distribution networks (CDNs) in the world. Why try to roll your own or pay a third party, when Facebook will host and deliver your content? This is going to get interesting quickly.
The Future Is Not What It Used to Be
There is a real danger. Publishers have been extremely bad at creating emotionally satisfying ways to consume written and graphical content online – especially on mobile devices. Platforms are either too gimmicky or too plain or too precious or too boring. Facebook Instant Articles raises the bar. Instant means instant. There is no lag time between the time you click and when you see the content. This new platform takes the concept of “on demand” very seriously – publishers will have to as well.
Facebook has created a distribution platform that allows creators to provide best-in-class experiences that inform, enlighten and entertain.
Facebook knows it’s the most popular house party on the mobile web and Instant Articles is clearly designed to keep you there. But even more importantly, Instant Articles will help Facebook standardize what happens when you click a link – one of the few user experiences it doesn’t already control.
Everyone who provides web UX and UI tools for content creators is going to have to step up their game. Facebook has created a distribution platform that allows creators to provide best-in-class experiences that inform, enlighten and entertain. In doing so, Facebook may actually become as indistinguishable from the Internet in the West as it is in the East.
I Use Facebook Every Day but I Don’t Use the Internet
Our COO Helani Galpaya was out in the field in Indonesia, doing qualitative interviews with BOP teleusers. She picked up an odd response pattern: negative answers to questions about Internet use that would lead us to conclude the respondent was not an Internet user but claims that they were using Facebook on the mobile. So it seemed that in their minds, the Internet did not exist; only Facebook.
(Author’s Note: BOP is an acronym for “Bottom of the Pyramid,” which for economic modeling purposes is defined as “the largest, but poorest socio-economic group. In global terms, this is the 3 billion people who live on less than $2.50 USD per day.”)
A statistically significant number of Indonesians told Galpaya they didn’t use the Internet. But in focus groups, these same users waxed poetically about how much time they spent on Facebook. Leo Mirani cited this research and other similar findings in a very well-written Quartz article.
Could Facebook Really Replace the Internet?
No. But it has a real opportunity to replace the Mobile Web. Facebook is far and away the biggest source of traffic for most websites (see the Sharealholic Chart above). Fish where the fish are. Why build a mobile website if you can upload content to a platform that has daily access to practically everyone you’d ever want to reach? This is a question that will be asked over and over again as Facebook continues to grow and other online vehicles and platforms are forced to fight for unique users and advertising dollars. If mobile is the future, Instant Articles is a remarkable head start.
Remember AOL? Not the one that just sold for $4.4 billion to Verizon, the original walled garden. Enter in a keyword and get taken to the page AOL was getting paid to show you. AOL had the right model; it was just 30 years or so ahead of its time. Facebook is just a minute away from bringing you enough of what you want to have you ignore, for all practical purposes, everything else. Apple and Google and to a lesser extent Amazon and Uber are on similar paths.
One Last Thing
Don’t worry too much about Facebook’s or anyone else’s power to censor the content you receive online – no one is going to successfully censor the extraordinary amount of information available online. That said, the most dangerous filter in the world is much closer to home. It’s the filter we impose on the content we consume by excluding voices and ideas outside our comfort zones in favor of the warm blanket of information and ideas we find most appealing. Just food for thought as you go fish where the fish are.