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May 20, 2015

Filed under: journalism»industry

Instant Noodles

Like all Facebook's attempts to absorb the news industry, there's a probable timeline their new Instant Articles will follow, and it basically looks like this:

  • 2015: Facebook introduces Instant Articles, in which a few media partners push their content directly into Facebook's servers, and (in the iPhone app only) it gets rendered without leaving the application. "Content," in this case, even includes the publisher's own ad and tracking systems.
  • 2016: The program expands to other publishers, albeit possibly with a few more "refinements" (read: restrictions) on what those publishers are allowed to do. It becomes fashionable in the newsroom to harass me about it.
  • Late 2016: Once Instant Articles gets some traction, Facebook finds a way to sabotage or undercut it. Either they'll introduce more restrictions on allowable features, or they'll lower the frequency at which the posts appear and charge newsrooms to "promote" them (or both — why take half measures?).
  • 2017: Noting that the magical promised ad dollars have not materialized (or are eaten up by tithes back to The Algorithm), media organizations start quietly reducing their Instant Article publishing rate. Jeff Jarvis writes a sad editorial about it.
  • 2018: Claiming it was an "educational" experiment, Facebook shuts down the program. Rumors begin circulating about its VR news platform, in which the New York Times will publish for Oculus Rift.

Instant Articles is not the first time Facebook has tried to take over the web, and it won't be the last. They're very bad at it, probably because they're the original kings of empty promises: working with Facebook is a constant stream of exasperation, until either you realize that they're incapable of maintaining a stable API/business relationship, or you slit your wrists. They've done it to game developers (goodbye, Farmville), to other newsrooms (remember Washington Post Social Reader?), and to anyone else who's tried to build on the various Facebook "platforms."

Lots of people have written very smart reactions to the Instant Articles announcement — I'm partial to Josh Marshall's behind-the-scenes take, John Herrman's spiral of bemused horror, and Zeynep Tufekci's reminder that Facebook cannot be trusted to engage honestly with its role as gatekeeper.

It's probably more fun to engage with the self-proclaimed "controversial" opinions, like this profoundly dumb thought-leadering from MG Siegler:

With Instant Articles, Facebook has not only done a 180 from what Mark Zuckerberg has called the company's biggest mistake, they've now done another lap just to prove a point.

They did a 180, and then took a lap, so... they ran the race backwards, which is a good thing? Somewhere, Tom Friedman feels a twinge of jealousy.

Not only is the web not fast enough for apps, it's not fast enough for text either. And you know what, they're right.

"They're right" that an app loading pre-cached text can be faster than a web browser downloading that same text from the network, yes. Apparently our plan now is just to restrict your reading material to what Facebook can download ahead of time. I hope you like Upworthy lists.

Though, in a way, Facebook itself really is just a web browser. It's just a different, newfangled one for a new era. A mobile era.

A different, newfangled web browser that only goes to Facebook, apparently. Who would want to read anything else? In the future, all websites are Facebook. (Ironically, according to the Instant Articles FAQ, they're fed from HTML anyway, so they're not even really that "new." But it's probably too much to expect Siegler to do research.)

Siegler's not the only person I've seen celebrating Facebook's move as an end to the open web (by which we mean HTML/CSS/JavaScript), although he's certainly one of the most gleeful (he also thinks Facebook should shut down its website entirely, in case you were wondering the general quality of his business advice). Of course, you'll notice that these hot takes are not themselves published to Facebook, or to a native app somewhere. If that were the case, no-one would have heard of them. They get posted to the web, where they can get linked and shared across social media, and read regardless of platform or hardware.

Even without without bringing in ideology, the "native apps instead of the web" idea faces a tremendous number of problems once you think about it for more than thirty seconds. How do new publications like The Toast or FiveThirtyEight get traction when you have to manually download them from an app store to read them? If they get popular through the web first, why bother transitioning to native? Nobody makes "reader" apps for desktops and laptops, so what happens to them? Does anyone really want to write long-form on Facebook, a service that only recently added an "edit post" button? Who cares: punditry is hard, let's go shopping!

It's easy to pick on shallow people who think Instant Articles represent a grand utopian state, but I'd also like to celebrate people who are actually building in the opposite direction. This weekend, I went to a Knight-Mozilla code convening in Portland, which included a ticket to the Write the Docs convention. I'm not a documentation writer, really, so most of the conference went right past me. But the keynote on the second day was by Ward Cunningham, inventor of the wiki, and it was a fascinating look at what it would really look like to reinvent the web.

For the past few years, Cunningham's been working on "federated" wikis, which store content on multiple servers instead of using a single database. If you link to another person's wiki page and you want to change the content, you fork it a la GitHub, and edit the new local copy (which remembers its origin) right there in your browser. You can also drag-and-drop content into a new page, if you want to merge text from multiple sources. It's pretty neat. The talk isn't online, but he did another presentation at New Relic that covers similar material.

Parts of Cunningham's pitch can sound kind of crankish, although I'm sure I would have said the same thing for the original wiki. But other parts are really interesting, such as the idea of creating a forkable attribution trail for data and reporting. Federated wikis are another attempt to decentralize and diversify the Internet, instead of walling it up behind a corporation's control. And a lot of it is inspired by the main insight that wikis had in the first place: on a wiki, you create a page by first creating a hyperlink to it, then following that link.

As a result, even though users don't directly type HTML into the window, this form of authorship is profoundly of the web, and it's the kind of thing that's never going to exist in a native application somewhere. The fact that Cunningham can experiment with adding new markup features in JavaScript — and even turn a browser into a new kind of hypertext reader, with a different interface paradigm — is what the web platform does best. Like water, it can flow, or it can crash.

And that's why it's ultimately ridiculous to act like some pre-cached news articles are the herald of a new media age. What the web gives us — a freedom for anyone to publish to everyone, a wildly cross-platform programming environment, a rich multimedia container where your plain-text article can live right next to my complex news app — is not going to be superceded by a bunch of native apps, and certainly not by Facebook. Instant Articles won't even be the future of news. Future of the web? Give me a break.

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