Facebook is about to become a source of more than cute cat photos and viral videos. Today, the social network confirmed a long-rumored plan to begin hosting articles from news publications directly on its pages. The partnership, which Facebook calls Instant Articles, is the culmination of months of negotiation between publishers and the social networking giant.
At the start, Facebook is partnering with nine media partners: The New York Times, BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, National Geographic, NBC News, The Guardian, BBC News, and German papers Bild and Der Spiegel. Instant Articles from the aforementioned publications will initially only be viewable on Facebook's iOS app, but the company says an update for Android is in the works.
The crux of Instant Articles is "faster" and "richer" stories. Facebook says that most media websites aren't very well optimized, especially on mobile -- stories shared on Facebook take an average of eight seconds to load, "by far the slowest single content type on Facebook," writes Product Manager Michael Reckhow. By providing dedicated servers for content, Instant Articles can serve stories up to 10-times faster.
But Instant Articles offers more than an incrementally faster browsing experience. Publishers have a number of embeddable "interactives" at their disposal: zoomable, high-resolution photo galleries; parallax videos that play as you scroll through articles; navigable maps; audio captions; and a per-line "like" and comment system. Even story templates are customizable, to a degree -- publishers can opt to include their logo, a "follow" button, and the authors' and photographers' Facebook photos at the top of each story.
The draw for publishers is Facebook's massive inbuilt audience. According to the Pew Research Center, a third of U.S. adults already consume news on Facebook. And a growing number -- 22 percent -- think of Facebook as "a useful way to get news." National Geographic alone gets 25 percent of its traffic from Facebook.
Considering the social network hasn't made a concerted effort until now to bring third-party news content to the forefront, those statistics are impressive. Facebook "[is] where the audience is," Vivian Schiller, a former executive at NBC, Twitter, and other media brands told The New York Times. "It's too massive to ignore." But the risk for publishers is all too palpable -- should Instant Articles become popular, news organizations risk becoming beholden to Facebook's whims. The social network doesn't take a cut of publisher's ad inserts right now, for example, but it could if media companies become increasingly reliant on Facebook as a distribution platform.
Furthermore, Instant Articles pose an obvious existential dilemma for publishers, who must surrender control of distribution in exchange for potentially greater exposure. Participating companies can exercise a degree of influence over Instant Articles -- they have the option of selling their own ads in articles, and can access traffic data through ComScore and other analytics tools -- but in a potentially ominous sign of things to come, they split revenue with Facebook if they choose to rely on the social network's advertising platform (Facebook gets 30 percent of the cut).
Those dystopian prospects have most of the initial partners taking a conservative approach -- none plan to put "more than a few articles a week into the new format," according to The New York Times. But some media executives don't seem concerned. "Our experience has been when you grow your off-platform audiene, generally, you grow your on-platform audience as well," Mark Thompson, president of The New York Times, said at Re/code's Code/Media event in February. "My starting assumption is typically you're better playing the game."
That may be because Facebook is couching Instant Articles as a companion, not a replacement, to traditional venues. "We're not trying to position Facebook as a replacement for a newspaper, or a radio show that you love, or TV, at all," Facebook's Chief Product Officer Chris Cox told The New York Times. "We're not trying to go, like, such in and devour everything."
Whether or not that's truly the intention, there's an undeniable user benefit to Instant Articles right now -- stories do, indeed, load faster, look prettier, and are easier to share. (Writer's note: I'd be lying if I said I wasn't impressed -- and, more importantly, likely to use -- the new feature.) If the popularity of Instant Articles proves proportional to their quality, publishers might have reason to worry.
Instant Articles were scheduled to go live on May 13, at 10:00 a.m ET. It's likely a server-side rollout, so don't panic if they haven't appeared for you yet.