Facebook Instant Articles: what’s in it for the users?

A lot has been written about Facebook’s launch of its new “Instant Articles” feature today with a respectable group of journalistic juggernauts participating at the launch, including, among others, the New York Times, the BBC, National Geographic, the Guardian, and, representing the new guard, Buzzfeed. Facebook offers publishers a tempting partnership at the moment, one that could allow them to grow their readership and maybe earn some advertising income.

Ben Thompson at Stratechery does a great job at explaining the partnership and its meaning for the journalism industry and he predicts a shakeup in that industry in the next years: “Too many sites have bad business models with bad incentives, and there will be a shakeout. I think, though, this will on the whole be a positive transition for consumers especially. Creating a destination, giving customers content that resonates, or building up alternative revenue streams that benefit from a site’s journalism all argue against the sort of content-farming and click-bait writing that dominates the web today.” I interpret that to say that the industry is in trouble and Facebook might do it some good by driving new customers and providing additional ad revenue.

Fast loading? Check. Looks great on mobile? Check.  Source: Facebook

Fast loading? Check. Looks great on mobile? Check.
Source: Facebook

But how does this change in hosting news content work for users? Facebook emphasizes speed and interaction:  “Web articles in the Facebook app take an average of eight seconds to load, by far the slowest single content type on Facebook. Using the same technology that loads photos and videos quickly in our mobile app, Instant Articles load as much as ten times faster than standard mobile web articles, so you get to the stories you want to read instantly. Once there, new features like tilt-to-pan photos, auto-play video, embedded audio captions, and interactive maps let you explore the story in beautiful new ways.”

I’m surprised that Facebook claims that web content takes 8 seconds to load and I am not sure that that is an entirely fair number, especially for the distinguished sites that are participating in the initial launch of the Instant Articles feature. Doesn’t that time depend as much on the connection speed and the phone’s power as much as the destination sites?

Putting the load time issue aside, are there any other advantage for users?

Frankly, I don’t see it. (That said, I can’t see it as it’s iOs only at this point.) Facebook’s newsfeed is notorious for showing users what Facebook wants them to see, not what they want to see. What happens when users like or click or otherwise engage with an article? Facebook sees that as a signal, a sign that the user cares about the post and bases future newsfeed decisions on such indicators. Zeynep Tufekci at the Huffington Post said it well: “while Facebook says that “you are the best decider for the things that you care about…” The reality is far from that, of course, since Facebook decides what signals it allows (Can you “dislike” anything on Facebook? Nope), which ones it takes into account and how, and what it ultimately shows its 1.4 billion users.” Users don’t know what elements of engagement Facebook considers when it makes future newsfeed decisions.

This leads me to the study published last week by Facebook where the object was to see if the newsfeed is an echo chamber. “Does the increasing role of algorithms of personalization and “engagement” on online platforms end up filtering out viewpoints that are different than our own?” asked the study and Facebook said no, it doesn’t.  As Wired reported: “according to their findings, Facebook’s own algorithms aren’t to blame. It’s us.”

To that claim, I found Ms Teufekci’s analysis spot on: “Facebook is on a kick to declare that the news feed algorithm it creates, controls and changes all the time is some sort of independent force of nature or something that is merely responsive to you, without any other value embedded in its design. But in reality, the algorithm is a crucial part of Facebook’s business model.”

Bottom line, for users, Facebook will decide what news items a user sees based on incentives only it knows, be they monetary or content driven. Will users be happy with that filtering or, like when Facebook was talking about the Ice Bucket Challenge and the world was focused on events in Ferguson, will users grow disillusioned with Facebook’s algorithmic decisions and turn elsewhere to get the “real” news?

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