On Tuesday, Facebook debuted its long-awaited Instant Articles feature to all users of its iPhone app. Now, when someone taps a story in their News Feed from a select group of publications—including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, and The Atlantic—they access a version stored directly on Facebook’s servers, not on the publication’s own. The company has started to test the feature on Android phones as well.
With the formal release of the feature, Facebook formally ends one era in the platform wars and begins another.
Since August 2013, when it adjusted the algorithm of its News Feed to favor “quality content,” Facebook has been the major referrer to news sites—either the fastest-growing or the just-plain biggest. Over the summer, the analytics company Parsely said that its proprietary data confirmed that Facebook now directs more traffic to news sites than Google. “The list is a lot longer than is publicly known of those that have Facebook delivering half to two-thirds of their traffic right now,” said Justin Smith, the CEO of Bloomberg Media, in February of this year.
And for almost as long as Facebook has been funneling free attention to news sites, there’s been a rumor that it wanted to go and straight-up host the content, too. There have been whispers of this intent since the summer of 2014; the late, great Times reporter David Carr was the first to actually report them almost exactly a year ago. The 12 months since have been stop-and-start: Buzzfeed and the Times itself would participate in the feature, we learned in March. Then we heard nothing for a while. Then Facebook began testing the feature, named “Instant Articles,” in May. Then we heard nothing for a longer while. And then, about three weeks ago, it began to trickle out to iPhone users. Now it’s fully deployed.
David Carr’s original précis—that hosting stories on the social network’s servers would make publications “serfs in a kingdom that Facebook owns”—has stuck to Instant Articles since the beginning. And ever-wary publishers have been especially skeptical of Facebook’s insistence that the feature is necessary because news sites are, as a category, too slow. (Facebook says it takes an average of eight seconds to load each page.)
I think to many publishers, this just didn’t make sense, because even if they think of website speed as a responsibility, it’s not a core concern. Telling publishers their site is too slow feels like telling a classical cellist that they take too long to start playing after walking on stage. The cellist could imagine the long pause affecting the listener, sure, but if the music’s good enough, why care? As the audience walks out of the concert hall that night, will they remember the brilliant conclusion or the eight seconds of initial silence?
Maybe now that there has been an industry-wide revolt against page loading speeds (it took the form of ad-blockers), publishers know better. But what has struck me about the first three days of using Instant Articles is that my behavior has already significantly changed to account for the speed boost. Posts of an Instant Article have a little lightning-bolt icon in the corner; I already find myself looking for that icon to decide whether to open a story. If it’s there, I figure there’s no opportunity cost, so I tap recklessly (“how bad could it be?”), the page loads more or less immediately, and I read it. If it’s not there, I go through a little mental routine of making sure that I really, really do want to read the story—and then, even though I know I’m going to pay the loading tax, I groan after I tap and that blank page appears.
Facebook has made an “open standard” that makes it easier for other publishers to adopt Instant Articles. According to Facebook, the list of news sites about to join the feature includes:
Billboard, Billy Penn, The Blaze, Bleacher Report, Breitbart, Brit + Co, Business Insider, Bustle, CBS News, CBS Sports, CNET, Complex, Country Living, Cracked, Daily Dot, E! News, Elite Daily, Entertainment Weekly, Gannett, Good Housekeeping, Fox Sports, Harper’s Bazaar, Hollywood Life, Hollywood Reporter, IJ Review, Little Things, Mashable, Mental Floss, mindbodygreen, MLB, MoviePilot, NBA, NY Post, The Onion, Opposing Views, People, Pop Sugar, Rare, Refinery 29, Rolling Stone, Seventeen, TIME, Uproxx, US Magazine, USA Today, Variety, The Verge, The Weather Channel.
That this list includes Billy Penn, a local Philadelphia news site, and the IJ Review, a conservative aggregator, and two professional American sports leagues, tells you a great deal about the feature’s imminent ubiquity. Very soon, every digital publisher, journalistic or non, that wants to be a serious online player will host a large portion of their content on Facebook’s servers. Instant Articles is just too good to resist, and I think the penalty for resisting will be too high. And then we all, Facebook and the media sector alike, will have to deal with the consequences—whether the comparisons to feudalism are correct or not.