— emily bell (@emilybell)，2015年5月13日。
As has been rumored for some time, Facebook launched a trial project called “Instant Articles” on Wednesday morning—a partnership with nine news organizations, including The New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed,and National Geographic. Under the terms of the deal, entire news stories from those partners will appear insideFacebook’s mobile app and be able to be read there, as opposed to the traditional practice of news publishers posting an excerpt and a link to their website.
At first blush, this sounds like a pretty straightforward exchange of value. Facebook gets what will hopefully be engaging content for its 1.4 billion or so users, and publishers get the reach that the social network provides—plus keep any revenue from advertising that they sell around that content. (if Facebook sells the ads, then publishers reportedly get to keep 70% of the proceeds.) So everybody wins, right?
That’s certainly the way Facebook is trying to sell the partnership: as a mutual exchange of goods, driven by the company’s desire to help publishers make their articles look as good as possible and reach more readers. But whenever you have an entity with the size and power of Facebook, even the simplest of arrangements becomes fraught with peril, and this is no exception. Why? Because a single player holds all of the cards in this particular game.
And that player is Facebook, as Columbia University’s Emily Bell noted on Twitter:
Main problem for publishers + FB remains theoretical: can you both be journalistic + be part of a commercial power structure?
— emily bell (@emilybell) May 13, 2015
The main reason why publishers like the Times have entered into this partnership in the first place is that they are falling behind when it comes to mobile. As technology analyst Ben Thompson points out, Facebook is quite right when it says that most news sites load too slowly and look terrible, rendering the ads on those pages largely useless. Facebook, however, understands mobile like no one else: everything loads faster, looks nicer and is more appealing to advertisers, in part because Facebook can do the kind of targeting that newspapers aren’t equipped to do.
This is what makes the social behemoth’s offer so appealing. Plus, publishers get to keep some or all of the ad revenue, and they also get data about what users are doing with their content, which is always useful.
The part of this deal that makes it a classic Faustian bargain is that Facebook arguably gets more from the arrangement than publishers do. How could that be, when it is giving away all the revenue? Because Facebook doesn’t really care about the revenue from ads around news content (although I expect most partners will take the 70% deal, if not now then later, because Facebook is better at selling ads). What Facebook wants is to deepen and strengthen its hold on users.
In that sense, news content is just a means to an end. And the risk is that if it stops being an effective means to that end, then Facebook will lose interest in promoting it. But in the meantime, Facebook will have solidified its status as the default place where millions or possibly even billions of people go to get their news. In other words, it will still own the land, and who farms which specific patch of that land is irrelevant.