Facebook Instant Articles has been available for iPhone users since October and now the feature is rolling out for Android users, along with five new Indian publishing partners.
The publications you will currently find on Facebook Instant are India Today, Aaj Tak, The Quint, Hindustan Times and Indian Express. For the publications involved, being first on Instant Articles is obviously a big deal – at least one even issued a press release announcing the tie-up. Facebook will watch how Instant Articles are consumed and then partner with other publishers starting in 2016, so in a sense these first five are pioneers in what could become a very important facet of publishing.
Many publishers talk about the impact of Facebook; casual conversations with editors of some of India’s most read news websites have confirmed that a majority of their readership already goes through the social network. While this isn’t the case for Gadgets 360, we also work hard to ensure our content is on Facebook, and strive to increase its reach there – as journalists, we want our words to reach the most of people possible, and that they go where the public is.
In short, Facebook is already pretty darn big in the publishing world, and thanks to Instant Articles, Facebook’s importance as a platform will only grow. That’s because the entire Instant Articles experience is all about people reading your articles on the social network, without ever having to leave the Facebook app.
This means readers can see articles almost instantly – there’s no browser launch, no slow page loading. Everything is cached in advance so stories can appear quickly even if you’re on a poor 2G connection, and other cool features include video covers for articles, tilting your phone to pan on a prominent image and follow buttons to encourage people to follow the publisher on Facebook. Additionally, the traffic generated still counts in analytics tools such as comScore, and publisher ads are displayed from which they continue to generate revenue.
There’s a catch – of course – which is that you’re locked into the Facebook ecosystem. Publishers will become even more dependent on Facebook’s audience, and the balance of power shifts irrevocably towards the social network. Does this sound far-fetched? Not really, especially when you consider that we’ve recently seen similar things happen with YouTube – by bringing together a number of different content sources under one roof, YouTube has helped increase everyone’s reach, but that has left all content creators dependent on YouTube, which can and has changed the rules of the game.
(Also see: Facebook Instant Articles and the Slow Death of an Open Web)
But that’s not the only reason we need to think very carefully about whether Instant Articles hold promise – or harm – for the news industry, and for the public in turn. By placing itself between the reader and the publisher, Facebook essentially wants to become the interface that we both have to rely on – it wants to mediate the conversation and that could be a problem. Consider this: A social networking site called Tsu.co had its links blocked on Facebook, allegedly for spamming. If you are a press publisher, would you be able to write an editorial denouncing this Facebook censorship, if your content is mediated by Facebook?
There is also the biggest net neutrality issue that Facebook is currently involved in, in India. Earlier, the Telecom Ministry even said that apps like Internet.org should not be allowed. Facebook responded by renaming its Free Basics initiative without addressing many of the underlying issues, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unleashed a charm offensive during his visit to Delhi.
The media discourse has been quite skeptical about Facebook on net neutrality, an issue of great importance to consumers. But it’s worth noting that these posts have also had regular access to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, including invitations to Facebook headquarters in San Francisco. These organizations were among those that sent reporters to IIT-Delhi to cover Zuckerberg’s visit, where any questions asked had to be screened as if the Facebook CEO were a visiting head of state.
This is not to say that being on Instant Articles was any kind of reward for maintaining “friendly relations”, nor that the work of journalists was compromised. We’re not asking about journalists’ posts, just pointing out that their addiction to Facebook is growing. As Instant Articles spread and more publishers join in, readers would prefer it too – after all, it loads instantly right where it already is.
But readers should consider whether it is in their interest to allow a mediator to exist between them and the content that interests them. Especially when this mediator is one of the largest private companies in the world. And publishers, in India and everywhere else, must also think deeply and seriously about this issue.