On Tuesday, Facebook announced Instant Articles, a new feature that dramatically speeds up the loading time for news articles by hosting them on Facebook's servers. Since then, I've seen a number of people I usually agree with, including Chris Mims and Mathew Ingram, make arguments against Facebook Instant Articles. But the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that the controversy will look silly in a couple of years.
Fundamentally, Instant Articles are an effort to solve a technical problem — slow loading times for articles — with a technical solution — pre-loading articles so that they're available immediately. Media organizations have been relying on third parties to distribute their content more efficiently for years; the shift to Facebook-hosted articles isn't fundamentally different than earlier shifts to content-delivery networks like Akamai or video-hosting services like YouTube.
The benefits to users are immediate and obvious. The harms to journalism are speculative and for the most part they don't withstand close scrutiny. Here's why.
1) Facebook's power might be bad for journalism, but not because of Instant Articles
People spend an incredible amount of time on Facebook, and that gives the social media site a ton of influence over which news articles people read. I think critics are right to worry that Facebook could abuse this power.
Facebook referrals account for a huge share of web traffic. Here's some data from Shareaholic:
By the end of 2014, Facebook was responsible for one-quarter of all traffic to the sites Shareaholic studied, dwarfing other sites like Pinterest and YouTube. This is consistent with our own experience at Vox: Facebook consistently drives dramatically more traffic to Vox.com than any other source.
This is made more alarming by the way Facebook's news feed works. To avoid overwhelming users with content, Facebook has an opaque algorithm that tries to predict which of their friends' posts users will be most interested and shows them first. In practice, that means that Facebook has a ton of discretion to decide how much traffic each site gets from Facebook.
Losing access to Facebook traffic would be a huge financial cost for most news sites, and that gives Facebook real power over the news industry. I'm told this was a major motivation for the first group of sites that signed up for Instant Articles — they were worried that if they didn't participate, Facebook would provide disproportionate traffic to their competitors.
But the key thing to notice here is that Facebook already had this power before Instant Articles came along. The power to play favorites comes from Facebook's ability to decide which articles to link to. Who hosts the content is irrelevant.
2) Instant Articles will only increase Facebook's power if it improves the user experience
The big worry of Instant Article skeptics is that users will get used to the fast loading of Instant Articles, and that this will have two negative effects. First, as the experience of reading news on Facebook improves, more people will do it, further expanding Facebook's market share and — therefore — its power. And second, users will become more reluctant to click on links to outside articles and wait several seconds for the article to load.
This argument doesn't take the welfare of Facebook users seriously. The several-second delay between the time a user clicks on a link and the time she's able to read an article is a real problem. Reducing that delay will, in the aggregate, save billions of minutes of wasted time and frustration. News organizations should want that not only because it's good for their readers but also because it will cause readers to read more news articles.
It might also make Facebook more popular, but if it does so it will be because it's providing more value to its users. It would be pretty cynical to view that as a problem.
3) Media companies rely on third-party distributors all the time
A big part of the uproar over Instant Articles seems to come from the perception that this is an unprecedented change in the way news stories are distributed. But this is actually just the latest step in a long evolution.
Websites have always been dependent on internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon to get their articles to customers. Today, virtually all websites also rely on third-party content delivery networks to efficiently distribute their content. And a lot of media companies use video services like YouTube and, yes, Facebook video to deliver video for customers.
The big difference between Facebook Instant and earlier distribution platforms is that Facebook has a bit more control over how content is presented to readers. But it's not obvious why this matters. No one thinks it's a threat to journalisms when newspapers syndicate one another's articles. The value of a New York Times article is in its content, not the design of the webpage that surrounds it.
A fair number of critics see Instant Articles as threatening because it means Facebook is competing with news organizations. But there's a fundamental difference between creating content and distributing it. Facebook isn't becoming a news organization any more than AT&T, Akamai, or YouTube are news organizations. Instant Articles a content distribution system that — like those other services — helps news organizations get their work to users.
4) Content companies often have a lot of leverage over distributors
To get a sense for how much leverage content producers can have in negotiations with distribution networks, it's worth looking to the cable industry, where media conglomerates periodically negotiate with cable companies to carry their television programming. You might expect cable companies to hold all the cards here, since cable companies control the pipes that actually deliver content to users
Yet surprisingly, media companies often get the upper hand in these negotiations. ESPN, for example, keeps raising its rates, and cable companies are forced to pay to avoid losing sports-loving customers. The value of the cable subscription comes from the quality of the programming the cable network offers. A cable subscription is worth a lot less without ESPN than with it.
The same point applies to Facebook. If Facebook stopped linking to New York Times articles, a lot of users would notice and object. Some of them would switch to another way of reading news. Others would just click on fewer links. It remains to be seen how much leverage news organizations will have, but they're far from powerless.
5) News sites aren't going away
Several people, including the Wall Street Journal's Chris Mims, have analogized Facebook to Darth Vader in a famous scene from The Empire Strikes Back, in which Vader reneges on a deal he'd made with Lando Calrissian:
Facebook to publishers every day forever pic.twitter.com/HdqEzciDzz— Christopher Mims (@mims) May 14, 2015
The idea here is that once news sites join Instant Articles, they'll lose all of their leverage and Facebook will be able to impose more and more unfavorable terms on them.
But this ignores the fact that these deals are non-exclusive. The New York Times isn't shutting down its website, and the majority of its traffic and revenues will continue to be generated there. And so when the time comes for the Times to renegotiate its contract with Facebook, it will have more or less the same leverage it had the first time around: the option to leave the program and go back to just providing articles on its website.
Mathew Ingram, for example, points to the bad experience of companies like Zynga that built apps atop Facebook's platform, only to have Facebook shift directions and leave these partners in the lurch. The difference, though, was that Zynga's most successful games were designed primarily for Facebook; Facebook users accounted for 80 percent of Zynga's revenue. But the New York Times isn't replacing nytimes.com with a Facebook app. If Facebook abandons Instant Articles in the future, things will go back to the way they were last week, with no lasting damage to the Times or other Instant Article partners.
6). There's no reason for Facebook to censor Instant Articles
It's exceedingly rare for distribution networks to engage in the kind of censorship Mims alludes to here:
What happens the day a publisher decides to post an anti-Facebook piece to Facebook Instant— Christopher Mims (@mims) May 13, 2015
Here at Vox.com, we not only count Comcast among our investors, we also rely on Comcast to deliver our website to a large fraction of our audience. Yet these facts have had zero impact on my ability to write nasty articles like this when I thought it was appropriate.
This isn't just because there would be a huge public uproar and probably unwelcome scrutiny from regulators if Comcast tried to block articles it didn't like. It's also because large-scale electronic distribution networks just aren't set up for this kind of censorship.
The same point applies to Facebook. It would be monumentally stupid for Facebook to try to use its power over news publishers to try to censor anti-Facebook articles. This would not only fail to suppress criticism (after all, people can find the articles lots of other ways), but it would trigger the Streisand effect and create a huge PR headache for the company.
Of course, Facebook's policies bar users from sharing certain types of content, such as pornography and hate speech, from Instant. And it's possible that this could lead to self-censorship by publishers. But to repeat my first point, this would be a reflection of power Facebook already had due to its large user base. Instant Articles doesn't matter one way or the other.