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Facebook has announced Instant Articles, a mobile app feature (for iPhone only, currently) where news from The New York Times, National Geographic, BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, The Guardian, BBC News and German news publishers Spiegel and Bild will be displayed inside the mobile app.

It’s worth noting that Facebook has already reduced the reach of news updates significantly with the intent of trying to get publishers to pay for better reach. With Instant Articles, will the availability of news articles grow and their reach increase for publishers who have signed up for it? Is it the case that now publishers being forced to sign up so that their article reach is extended?

Instant Articles is interesting because it basically gives Facebook the potential to curate a user’s newsfeed to push articles from its partner publications. There is also the chance that Facebook could down rate (push lower) the content coming from other publishers who did not sign up for Instant Articles.

Publications may lose out on important data about their readers when users visit their websites, and maim their ability to to carry out specific and targeted advertising, and all that data on user behaviour may end up benefiting Facebook which isn’t exactly a paragon of virtue when it comes to data privacy.

Facebook claims that
– web articles on the Facebook app take an average of 8 seconds to load, which is the slowest single content type on Facebook and
– Instant Articles will load content in less than a second (10x faster than standard mobile web articles).

Which brings us to the other question: What about other publications, those who didn’t sign up for Instant Articles, will their load speeds be throttled or will they continue to load at ~8 seconds as Facebook claims? For now, Facebook loads news articles in its Android app in-app by default. Users can change that setting by going into “app settings” and asking Facebook to load news articles in a mobile browser by default. In iOS, interestingly, users do not have this option in their app settings. It seems that all links that a user clicks on, in the app, open only in-app and after opening the link, the user gets an option to open the article in a mobile browser.

However, Facebook claims that for publishers who do not want to participate, “standard articles will be accessible from Facebook via the standard mobile browser.” Does this mean that those publishers’ articles will open in a mobile browser by default instead of opening in the app? How will it process non-publishers’ articles on iOS?

For publishers who have joined the program, this looks like a new way to experiment with user growth and engagement. We’d reported about two months ago that Facebook would apparently remove the usual ads of a publication (when the content was hosted on Facebook) and show a single ad in a custom format within each Facebook article.

Features of Instant Articles:

Instant Articles will also have features like tilt-to-pan photos, video autoplay (not a good move, in our opinion, especially for India, with limited bandwidth issues), embedded audio captions, in-photo zoom and interactive maps. Users will also be able to comment on parts of an article in-line. It will make use of automated content syndication using standards like HTML and RSS. The same content will also be accessible through the publishers’ websites.

Facebook claims that this tool will not only help publishers create fast and interactive articles on the platform, but also give them control over stories and monetisation of the content. It will let publishers sell ads in the articles (the horror of not having adblock!), the revenue of which they can keep, or use Facebook’s Audience Network to monetise their unsold inventory. An ET report mentioned that publishers can also allow Facebook to sell ads and that Facebook will keep 30% of the generated revenue. They will also be able to track data as well as traffic through comScore and other analytics tools.

Also read: Facebook’s Internet.org platform is a privacy nightmare: tracks users on partner sites, allows telcos to track

Image Credit: Flickr user Mkhmarketing