Facebook Instant Articles: A deal with the devil?

What is Facebook's Instant Article really about?

The relationship between publishers and Facebook cannot be easy. The social networking giant has a way of locking you in with its friendly, “nothing to hide here” charm but leaving you with an uneasy feeling that it could turn on you just as suddenly.

So what could publishers be feeling anxious about? Well, rumours had been circulating for a while that Facebook was trying to find ways to collaborate with publishers. Mostly, to improve the user experience on mobile. Now, some publishers have finally succumbed to Facebook’s demands and the result: Facebook’s announcement of its Instant Articles product.

The initiative will mean that certain publishers have given Facebook permission to host their articles on Facebook directly. Previously, users could only click through on links which meant clunky waiting times for the content to load. Facebook says, to date, these stories could take up to an average of eight seconds to load, but now this will be much faster. According to Facebook, Instant Articles will give “publishers control over their stories, brand experience and monetisation opportunities” and “publishers will also have the ability to track data and traffic through comScore and other analytics tools”. So far, nine partners have signed up: The New York Times, National Geographic, BuzzFeed, NBC, The Atlantic, The Guardian, BBC News, Spiegel and Bild.

On the face of it, it’s easy to see how Facebook sold this idea to publishers in meetings. Publishers cannot ignore the fact that Facebook is a huge source of traffic for digital publishers. They also cannot ignore that the mobile market is growing massively. A study found that at the start of 2015, 39 out of 50 news sites have more traffic coming from mobile users than desktop users.

But what will handing over some control of content to Facebook mean? As David Carr wrote in his piece: “That kind of wholesale transfer of content sends a cold, dark chill down the collective spine of publishers, both traditional and digital insurgents alike”. Sure, at the moment Facebook says it will be a mutually beneficial relationship where publishers will still maintain control of their “content and business models”. For now. But what about the future?  As user traffic to Facebook increases, who’s to say Facebook won’t change the terms and start calling the shots? For the publishers it’s not an easy balance. In order to keep up with fast-moving consumer demands – sometimes you have to pay a price. We saw this happen with Amazon. At the moment Facebook already has the upper-hand, and this deal will only shift the power more in its favour.