A few weeks ago Facebook launched Instant Articles for the users of its app. Instant Articles is a direct descendant of "Paper", another FB news feature, and it is going to revolutionise mobile news. The list of partners is growing globally and in the past few days many Indian publications declared their involvement in the new feature.
With Instant Articles, users will be able to open an article directly on the app newsfeed. The article will be stored on Facebook's servers and will save a lot of time and data to readers. In fact, Instant Articles are designed to use little data and charge fast. Facebook said that they load 10 times faster than normal links.
Users no longer will be directed to slow and heavy mobile websites and the articles will open within the app. Not only faster and easily accessible, Instant Articles will also look beautiful, adding new features and enriching the mobile reading experience. Developer said that Instant Articles are also more likely to be shared than normal links and as a consequence rank higher in the News Feed.
Marketed as convenient and efficient, this new feature has been welcomed not only by many Facebook users, but also by major US publishers such as the New York Times, the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and many others. Instant Articles were initially only available on Iphones but they have been recently made available for all android users, increasing enormously the number of Indian users affected. Among the Indian participants there are influential media houses like India Today (which competes with Outlook), the Indian Express and Hindustan Times. Many are expected to follow.
But what may look like a successful innovation to many is actually considered a dangerous threat by others. Many influential technology experts have condemned the initiative, arguing that it poses a threat to net neutrality and the very existence of the web. The list includes NYT editor David Carr, who talked about Facebook supremacy in a kingdom of serfs (media companies), Mozilla's head of Public Policy Chris Riley, who talked about Facebook gate-keeping strategy threatening the open web, and the Verge editor Nilay Patel, who talked about the slow death of Internet.
One of the main objections towards Facebook's strategy is that it is creating a walled garden where internet users are kept on the platform. Facebook now offers a multitude of services within its app and users can find most of what they need without browsing the web. A new feature has been introduced recently allowing users to make universal searches across the entire social network. This means that you can now see what the internet is talking about without leaving the app. Instant Article is considered part of this strategy and could give Facebook unprecedented power and control over the news market.
This move could increase radically Facebook's traffic and amount of data gathered, boosting enormously market share and advertisement revenues. In this setting, Facebook sets the trends and the publishers are bound to follow. The initiative is considered disruptive by many: publishers that are not willing to adapt and move their content in Facebook's servers will certainly face market share losses.
Still, publishers will be able to benefit from advertisement revenues (now shared with FB) and build a sustainable business model. The downside is that they will lose the close contact with their readership: no longer redirecting users to their websites, editors will become almost anonymous. Their status is under threat and some even argue that they will become more like ghostwriters. Readership loyalty and subscription are also expected to be negatively affected by Instant Articles. With no bargaining power and dependent on FB to get readers, publishers run the risk of becoming extremely weak.
Some independent digital publishers were also unsatisfied with the initiative. They believe that Instant Articles are shown in the Newsfeed through an unfair algorithm which favors big publishers. As a matter of fact, exposure is partly related to how much money the publisher put into advertisement. Yet, small publishers have also fewer resources to adapt to FB technical regulations. This factor could give "mainstream" media a comparative advantage, threatening the openness and the variety of online news found on FB and eventually endangering democracy.
However, Facebook is not yet our only source of mobile information and many readers are still using traditional browsers. More importantly, mobile news is on the rise but far from omniscient. The issues raised by technology experts are certainly relevant but they are also based on many conjectures. Facebook Initiative has a huge potential and will certainly influence the way we read mobile news but is not going to change the entire news market overnight.
Competitors have realised that if they don't want to fall behind and lose market share they have to react quickly playing the same game (which brings to similar public concerns). Apple has introduced its fast and attractive news app and is trying to keep users on the Iphone platform. Google has initiated the "Accelerated mobile pages" Project through which is trying to make mobile websites and in particular mobile news up to 85 per cent faster. While Facebook and Apple work similarly and towards "gatekeeping", Google is working differently towards a web based and open platform. Nonetheless, also Google initiative has its own biases and selfish motives.
In the past few years Facebook has increased enormously its online advertisement market share. Recently, Facebook surpassed Google for the share of traffic that is driven to publishers. Instant Article is certainly going to increase this tendency, consolidating Facebook leading position. India is the second-largest Facebook market with over 130 million active users and the gains the company can make here are enormous.
Reacting to critics, Facebook responded that rather than creating a walled garden with Instant Articles it is trying to improve the mobile news experience, making it faster and attractive. Yet, with this initiative it is simply meeting consumer's demand for a more individualised and customised experience. With less time on their hands, users constantly try to be more efficient. With Facebook newsfeed algorithm, users can save time and easily access the articles they want to read. Also publishers will be better off, reaching their readers faster and more conveniently.
Facebook is certainly raising relevant points and Instant Articles will make life easier for many users. Yet, what is concerning internet activists and technology experts is not the efficacy and apparent convenience of the service: they are worried about the openness of the web, especially if press is involved. They don't like the idea of a few giants controlling and supervising information, even if they do it efficiently.
Are the critics being nostalgic and conservatives It's difficult to say — in the end innovation has always been a disruptive force, destroying solid structures and creating new ones.
Pietro Reviglio is a trainee journalist with Outlook. He has recently completed his Bachelor's in Social Sciences from Maastricht University, The Netherlands.