Updated, Tuesday, 10:45 a.m.
About a year ago, Facebook made a big change to its News Feed, the central stream users see when they open the service’s homepage or smartphone app. Into the algorithmic mix of statuses and pictures normally there, the social giant began to toss many, many more news stories from around the web.
The change turned users into readers—or, at least, skimmers—and provided a traffic boon to online publishers. Since then, Facebook has continued to hone that feature, reducing the prevalence (for example) of especially click-baity content that some users find annoying.
Now, the company has introduced an even more reader-friendly feature: It’s giving users a way to slow down the stream.
Facebook today introduced a new “Save” feature to its homepage and smartphone apps. When someone see a link to a news story in their feed that they want to read, but which they don’t have time for at the moment, they’ll be able to click “Save for Later” and add the story to a list to read later.
The feature mirrors popular apps like Instapaper and Pocket, though it doesn’t let users save stories for offline reading as those do. Unlike those apps, too, it has access to users’s Facebook News Feeds—which means it can re-advertise the stories in their feed later on as “Links You Saved.”
And “Save” makes sense. Facebook believes its future is app-ified: Unlike the singular, monolithic Facebook of yore, the company thinks users will soon interact with its core service through many smaller routes. They won’t use Facebook’s photo-sharing service; they’ll use Instagram. That philosophy underlies both Facebook’s ginormous purchase of messaging software WhatsApp and its development of struggling Snapchat competitor, Slingshot.
Another way to app-ify your future is to, well, borrow features of popular apps and fold them into your main product. That’s just what “Save” is—it borrows from Instapaper and Pocket—and, while it can seem like the big bad blue is stealing products from smaller competitors, these large-scale borrowings can supposedly help stimulate sales of the borrowed-from.
That is, Facebook isn’t the first company to mimic Instapaper or Pocket. In 2011, Apple released “Reading List” on to the desktop and iOS version of its web browser. Like “Save,” it let users save a webpage to be read later. Yet upon its release, Instapaper developer Marco Arment was sanguine:
My biggest challenge isn’t winning over converts from my competitors: it’s explaining what Instapaper does and convincing people that they actually need it. Once they “get it”, they love it, but explaining its value in one quick, easy-to-understand, general-audience sentence is more difficult than you might imagine.
If Apple gets a bunch of Safari users — the browser that works best with Instapaper — to get into a “read later” workflow and see the value in such features, those users are prime potential Instapaper customers. And it gives me an easier way to explain it to them: “It’s like Safari’s Reading List, but better, in these ways.”
Substitute “Facebook” for “Apple” and “Safari,” and you have today’s situation. And though it's natural for any business leader to play it cool in the face of competition, Instapaper and Pocket do have core features Save doesn’t. It’ll be interesting to see whether, at its largest scale yet, Arment's predicted effect comes true.
Update: I emailed Marco Arment on Tuesday to learn whether Safari’s Reading List ever affected Instapaper sales. Though he eventually sold the app to the New York City-based startup Betaworks, Arment developed and owned Instapaper for more than 18 months after Apple rolled out its competing feature. During that period of time, did he ever see it change his market prospects?
He doesn’t think so. “In retrospect, I don't think [Safari’s Reading List] had any noticeable effect either way on Instapaper sales,” Arment wrote.