8 Seconds on Facebook: The Rise of Instant Articles

Phil Schwarzmann

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What happens in eight seconds on Facebook?

That’s how long, on average, it takes a news story clicked on Facebook to download on a mobile device. In Internet time, that’s forever, and it’s also more than enough time for that content to lose its “goodness,” Facebook’s chief product officer Chris Cox told The Verge. And lost goodness can definitely translate to lost readers.

To avoid goodness depletion, and expand its already substantial role as a news delivery network, Facebook has introduced “instant articles.” These articles are exactly what they sound like – stories that load instantly or, more specifically, a lot quicker than eight seconds. The increased speed could mean increased readers for publishers and even more influence for Facebook as a news distributor.

It’s the kind of story we take note of at Equinix because we’re into speeding content to users for our media and entertainment and other content delivery customers who are producing and delivering it. If “instant articles” take off, it’s going to change things for our customers, which means it will change things for us. So we’re watching with interest like everyone else.

Facebook is increasing the download speed of its instant articles with technology that pre-loads the story as the reader approaches it in the news feed, so readers can see the top of the story as soon as they tap. The Verge reports that Facebook also strips out most the dozens of modules for serving advertisements and analytics that publishers pack on their pages, which also accelerates the download.

Success with instant articles means Facebook increases its significant – and maybe surprising – strength as an online news distributor. According to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center, 30% of adults in the U.S. get their news from Facebook. Still, less than a quarter of those adults think of Facebook as a useful place to get news. In other words, they read the stories while on Facebook for other reasons. If reading news can become the reason to visit Facebook for more people, the company’s formidable strength as a content source grows. And with more people visiting the site, for any reason, then Facebook’s influence grows.

So far, just nine media companies have agreed to directly load their content onto Facebook, but they are prominent outlets, including The New York Times, Buzzfeed, NBC News and BBC News. Facebook exercises no editorial control over the content and publishers can sell or embed ads in the articles and keep all of the revenue. They can also allow Facebook to sell the ads for a 30% cut.

The deal has shaken some in the legacy media, inspiring worries that as the instant articles grow in popularity, Facebook will change its terms to become less favorable to publishers, news content will be censored and media companies will ultimately weaken their own businesses. But others say such fears about Facebook’s instant articles are unfounded and the biggest fallout of the introduction of instant articles will be its benefits for users.

The future of instant articles is all mixed up in questions about where independent content can live and remain independent, what publishers must do to survive – and what they don’t have to do – and how much readers care about where they get their news. Either way, we’re about to see how much eight seconds matters.