Turning inner space into outer space

May 16, 2015

Facebook slaps a happy-face sticker on the news

A Facebook spokesman had an interesting answer when asked about a deal the social media giant made with publishers to post their content — no links, the entire story — in people’s Facebook feeds.

“We’re not trying to go, like, suck in and devour everything,” Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, told the New York Times.

And yet here we have the New York Times, National Geographic and Buzzfeed and others handing over their content to a new Facebook feature called Instant Articles. Not only can you read the entire article on Facebook, but you’ll likely have a better experience than if you read it on any of the publishers’ individual websites.

For one thing, the articles really do appear instantly. There is no wasting of valuable seconds while they download. Plus, they have built-in videos, narration and maps you can play with. These stories are fast and immersive — about as good as it gets.

Currently, they’re only available on the Facebook app for iPhone, but expect that to expand as they grow in popularity.

News sites have long had a relationship with Facebook, but it was more symbiotic. They would post a teaser and readers would click a link that took them to the site so they could read the whole thing. The Guardian, for example, gets huge amounts of traffic to its site this way.

So why give away the whole thing to Facebook? Mainly because the deal allows news publishers to sell ads on the articles and keep all the money they make off them. Or they can let Facebook sell the ads for them in return for a 30 per cent cut. With the promise of exposure to the billion people who use Facebook, selling ads should be easy either way.

It sounds like a sweet deal, but can Facebook be trusted? They have the upper hand in this relationship and could easily force more favourable terms for themselves in the future if it turns out there is a lot of money on the table.

They do this kind of thing all the time with the algorithm they use to decide what gets prominence in your news feed. It’s not the latest articles that show up on top — it’s whatever their data scientists think is most important. And what might that be? Facebook gives hints from time to time, but otherwise it’s a guessing game.

Which brings me back to Chris Cox. His line is that Facebook give users what they want.

In my mind that’s lot different from the mission of high quality journalism, which is to give readers what the need. Sure, it’s great to see happy news about a friend’s vacation, but in a democracy you really need to know about things like government corruption so you can make an informed choice at election time.

I don’t expect Instant Articles to cover those kinds of topics. They say ignorance is bliss, but being well informed means having your view of the world challenged from time to time. We won’t get that from the Facebook version of the news.