Bad for the web: Facebook plays news gatekeeper with new Instant Articles service

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Facebook Inc. has launched a new service whereby publishers post full content on Facebook, a move that does nothing to encourage competition, and everything to increase the lock-in value of the Facebook ecosystem.

Called “Instant Articles,” the service sees initially nine partners posting selected content on Facebook in a new view that includes interactive features that is said to make the viewing experience quicker, and more visually appealing.

The launch publishers providing content are The Atlantic, BBC News, Bild, BuzzFeed, The Guardian, National Geographic, NBC, the New York Times, and Spiegel.

In return for sharing their content, publishers have two ad choices: they can include their own ads in with their articles and retain 100 percent of revenue, or they can let Facebook sell the ads and take a 70 percent cut.

For Facebook, the pitch is all about the user experience and the need for speed.

“As more people get their news on mobile devices, we want to make the experience faster and richer on Facebook. People share a lot of articles on Facebook, particularly on our mobile app” Facebook Product Manager Michael Reckhow writes in an introduction to the service.  “To date, however, these stories take an average of eight seconds to load, by far the slowest single content type on Facebook. Instant Articles makes the reading experience as much as ten times faster than standard mobile web articles.”

Other features in the “interactive” stories include the ability to zoom in and explore high-resolution photos, auto-play videos (apparently Facebook thinks this is a positive,) the ability to explore interactive maps, listen to audio captions, and the ability like and comment on individual parts of an article in-line.

Bad for the web

It’s understandable why publishers are at least willing to give Instant Articles a go, given both the number of eyeballs on Facebook, and that the beast Mark Zuckerberg built is literally becoming the one stop shop for all things, at least on mobile.

But the move is without doubt bad for the web.

There is precedent as well: Google previously tried something similar with Knol, and as Danny Sullivan so aptly puts it on Twitter:

The move makes Facebook a gatekeeper for content, and if Instant Articles becomes a success (from a user viewpoint it is a good offering) more and more content providers will join, complete with more and more eyeballs on Facebook, and less eyeballs falling outside of it.

Facebook as a reliable platform provider also has a dubious past, given what they previously did in downgrading apps from their platform, so there’s also a risk factor there, but likewise Facebook is unlikely to follow a similar path: it wants these extra eyeballs and publishers are going to hand it to them on a platter.

Do we want a world where Facebook, and perhaps later Google if Facebook’s model is accepted, become the main, primary gatekeepers of content on the web?

Big Zuckerberg may already be tracking you, but in a world with only a few gatekeepers the totalitarian nature of it all may well become the authoritarian nightmare of George Orwell, or, more likely given the dross many feed on in the media in 2015, something closer to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Instant Articles is now available of Facebook’s iOS app. No word on when it will be available on Android.

Image credit: ilifeinicity/ Flickr/ CC by 2.0