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Facebook Instant Articles, explained

Facebook has a problem, or thinks it does: reading news stories from Facebook's mobile app doesn't work very well. The company says the average news article takes eight seconds to launch — time in which a bored mobile user might give up and open another application altogether.

Facebook wants to change that. So today the company announced a new partnership with some of the nation's most prestigious publications, including the New York Times, National Geographic, and the Atlantic, where Facebook will actively host entire articles on behalf of news organizations.

Facebook's hope is that this will drastically improve article loading times, particularly on mobile devices. The company is also offering ways for publishers to improve the display of images and video.

But even as major news organizations participate in the partnership, journalists are worried that the deal will give Facebook too much power over the news business. Fusion's Felix Salmon, for example, wrote in March that if news organizations signed up with Facebook, they risked "losing most of the things which make [a] news brand memorable and unique."

How will Facebook's deal with publishers affect ordinary users?

The main thing users will notice — if they notice anything at all — is that articles from certain media organizations start loading more quickly than they did before.

In the past, when a Facebook user on a smartphone clicked on a link to a news story, it would open a separate browser window and begin downloading an entire webpage. In the new model, publishers upload copies of their articles to Facebook so they can be hosted on Facebook's servers. This allows Facebook to optimize how the articles are delivered to Facebook.

Facebook hasn't provided a lot of details on the technology behind the product, but what looks to be happening is Facebook is pre-loading the article's content so that it's already on the device when a user clicks a link. Right now, Instant Articles are only available for iOS, but an Android version is expected soon.

The resulting speed increase is dramatic:

But aside from this speed increase, users probably won't notice much difference. Facebook is touting several other features, such as the ability to zoom in on images and autoplay videos, but it's not clear how often publishers will take advantage of these features.

Why are publishers doing this?

(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Publishers have grown dependent on traffic from Facebook, and Facebook has a lot of discretion to decide which content is featured in its users' news feed. This fact gives Facebook a lot of leverage. Some publishers fear that if they don't participate, Facebook will point its firehose of traffic in the direction of more pliant competitors.

At the same time, the program offers some benefits for publishers as well. Faster loading times are good for publishers as much as they are for Facebook. And joining Instant Articles gives publishers access to Facebook's powerful advertising program. Facebook knows a lot about its users, and this data allows them to target ads at users who are most likely to be interested in them. That's good for advertisers, who are able to get a bigger impact from fewer ads.

Facebook-hosted articles can have Facebook-hosted ads next to them, and Facebook will give publishers 70 percent of the revenue generated with these Facebook ads. If Facebook's ad platform is good enough, publishers may find that 70 percent of the money from a Facebook ad is worth more than 100 percent of an ad they sell themselves.

Facebook made a few other concessions to coax publishers to get on board. First, publishers retain the right to place their own ads next to the content, and according to reports, they'll keep 100 percent of the revenues from these ads — at least for now. Facebook will also allow publishers to independently measure traffic to Instant Articles using third-party tools such as Google Analytics and Omniture.

Finally, publishers retain substantial control over the branding of Instant Articles. A New York Times article will have a prominent New York Times logo at the top, making clear to readers that they're reading a Times story, not a generic Facebook news story.

Why do critics say this is a threat to journalism?

Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox. (Ian Kennedy)

A number of journalists worry that the deal will give Facebook too much power over the news business. Here's how Felix Salmon put it in March:

It’s about losing control over exactly how your content is presented and delivered — about losing most of the things which make your news brand memorable and unique. At some point, it’s easy to foresee a world where talented individuals, rather than brands, make a good living by producing the kind of news content which "works really well" on Facebook. If Facebook becomes the new YouTube in that respect, and if Facebook continues to grow as a trusted news source in its own right, then the result could be an existential crisis for news organizations with old-fashioned things like editors and fact-checkers and clear ethical guidelines.

Skeptics believe that news organizations need the kind of control they get from running their own website. In their view, running their own websites fosters a stronger bond between readers and publishers and gives publishers more opportunity to innovate.

They also worry that the relatively favorable terms of Facebook's current deal with publishers won't last. They worry that Facebook could start taking a greater cut of ad revenue, limit news organizations' control over how their content is presented, and limit their access to data about their users' online activities.

As David Carr put it last year: "Many publishers are worried that what has been a listening tour could become a telling tour, in which Facebook dictates terms because it drives so much traffic."

Worst of all, they worry that Facebook will use the leverage provided by its huge audience to coerce the rest of the news industry into joining Facebook's platform. Now that nine prestigious publishers have agreed to join the platform, Facebook could direct more traffic to them and less traffic to the rest of the news industry. That would create tremendous pressure on those other publishers to join up.

Are the critics right?

Users come to Facebook for this kind of thing more than for news. (sabianmaggy)

It's too early to say, but I'm skeptical.

If you're worried about Facebook having too much power over the news business, then your beef is with user behavior in general, not Instant Articles in particular. The reason Facebook generates so much traffic for news organizations is because users spend a huge amount of time on the site.

And reading news is a small fraction of people's Facebook time. People mostly use Facebook to look at pictures of their grandchildren, share photos of their friends' weddings, and swap gossip about life in their hometowns. Facebook would continue to be a very popular website even if it had zero news content.

So it's not obvious how much publisher participation in Instant Articles increases Facebook's power. Facebook had a lot of power over the news industry last week, and it would have continued having that power even if no publishers had signed up for Facebook-hosted news.

And crucially, these content deals are non-exclusive. Facebook users on iPhones will see a special, Facebook-optimized version of New York Times articles. For everyone else, the Times website will work exactly the same way it did before. And that's unlikely to change, because while Facebook generates a lot of traffic, most of the news industry's traffic still comes from elsewhere on the web.

This means that news organizations retain a fair amount of leverage. If Facebook tried to drastically alter the terms of the deal, the news organizations can quit the program and take their content with them. They'd face some costs for this — slower load times and the loss of access to Facebook's lucrative ad platform — but that's just another way of saying they'd be back where they were before they signed up for the program.

What does Instant Articles say about the evolution of the web?

The web is maturing. The early days of any new communications media tends to be a free-for-all, with a lot of small publishers or broadcasters experimenting with the new technologies and building up modest audiences.

But then there's usually a period of consolidation, when a few channels gain a disproportionate share of the traffic. In the 20th century, the television business became dominated by ABC, CBS, and NBC. Most cities became dominated by one or two newspapers. A few magazines like Time and Newsweek dominated the weekly news business.

Something similar seems to be happening on the web. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are emerging as the ABC, CBS, and NBC of the 21st century — sites that attract vastly more traffic than most others.

But the web has two big things going for it. First, these new platforms still give users a lot more control than the old ones did. In 1970, everyone had to choose from the same 3 TV shows. Today, Facebook does a pretty good job of letting you pick what content you're interested in, and Twitter gives power users even more control over the content they choose.

Second, while a few sites are a lot more popular than the rest, there are still a lot of options out there. You can find news using Reddit or Digg or Pinterest or dozens of other sites. And while Facebook has a huge head start, barriers to entry are still pretty low. If Facebook stops serving its users well, someone else might take its place.