free-basics

Facebook has begun rolling out its Instant Articles feature to Android phones in India, the company told LiveMint yesterday. Instant Articles is a service wherein publishers allow Facebook to publish their entire content on the platform, and is loaded within the app itself. This gives Facebook control of the environment in which it is read, and optimise it for faster consumption. Websites usually have badly optimised javascript with external plugins that slow them down, as a compromise for features being served to readers.

The five publishers are India Today, The Quint, Aaj Tak, Hindustan Times and the Indian Express. Among these, it’s worth pointing out that the India Today group, which owns India Today and Aaj Tak, was also a part of Facebook’s Internet.org service, the last time Facebook released its list of partners.

Like Facebook, Twitter also loads news (albeit sporadically) from publications within its own application. However, it does this without giving publishers the ability to opt out: this robs publishers of the option of monetizing views on their own platform, and is thus akin to stealing content.

MediaNama’s take: Feeding the beast

Bait and switch is not something new to Facebook: platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter focus on first helping build massive fragmentation, to build a mass audience and user base, and become the aggregators of this fragmentation. Once there is sufficient fragmentation in the market, it will be difficult for them to exit it, because it remains their key mode of monetization online. We’ve seen this play out with Google: both YouTube and the (Android) Play Store are examples of platforms where, once publishers are in, they find it difficult to exit: they’ve helped build a mass audience for the platform, and now they’re at the mercy of the changes in terms and conditions on the platforms.

Like in case of Internet.org’s FreeBasics, Instant Articles is a service that inserts itself in between the direct relationshop between a publisher and a reader: you will have access to the data that Facebook will provide you, and it will always have access to more than you do. It’s no longer your reader: it’s theirs. Such services also significantly impact the way the open web works: it’s the death of the link, as Mathew Ingram wrote earlier.

The mass fragmentation means that no single provider (publisher) can reign supreme. Today Facebook as 5 publishers, tomorrow it will have 5000, and then at some point: 100,000. What publishers will be left with is a situation wherein their advertising will have shifted significantly to Facebook, and Facebook will take a cut of it. It will be in position to tweak visibility of content and charge for greater visibility – which is exactly what it did with brand pages on Facebook. It will also be in a position to disallow certain terms of delivery of content, which is what Google did with allowing hardcoded ads on YouTube videos. Publishers have to sell their own advertising on the platform, of which they pay 30% to Facebook, and they have no control over advertising formats: the sizes are determined by Facebook, and no rich media ads are allowed. Any changes in the future are Facebook’s prerogative, not that of the publishers.

The way Facebook surfaces and ranks content could change as more publishers come on board, and the news website as a destination for discovery of content will no longer exist.What is clear here is that this isn’t the same as syndication: it’s not an additional source of revenue, nor does it not take away audience from a publisher. From The Wall Street Journal:

According to Cory Haik, executive director for emerging news products at The Washington Post, the publisher has seen a dip in mobile traffic to its website as a result, but that decline has been directly offset by the number of people consuming its content via Instant Articles.

“Overall we haven’t seen a dramatic change in the audience that comes from Facebook. We’re swapping one form of traffic for another”

By the time the switch happens, moving out, for an individual publisher, will mean either losing audience, advertisers, or giving their competitors a competitive advantage.

Publishers who have signed up for Instant Articles are either myopic or desperate, or both.

(Update: an earlier version of this post incorrectly said that it wasn’t possible to share links that open in Twitter’s ‘Quick View’. It is, and the error is regretted)