Last spring Facebook started hosting stories from the New York Times, BuzzFeed and other publishers directly on its iPhone app — a move that generated much chatter and hand-wringing about the Future of Media.
Since then, Future of Media chatterers have moved on to other topics, and it has been hard to see much evidence of Facebook’s “Instant Articles” project. This has led some people to conclude that the project is a non-thing.
Not so, according to Facebook. The social network says it is ramping up its efforts for its Instant Articles by expanding the number of users who can see them and the number of publishers that can create them.
And one of those new publishers — the Washington Post — says it will start running every single one of its stories on Facebook via Instant Articles. That is: If you wanted to, you could read the Post’s entire output — some 1,200 articles a day, including wire stories — without ever leaving Mark Zuckerberg’s app.
For context: Up until today, Facebook says, the nine publishers it has already signed on have been publishing “hundreds” of articles daily, a number Facebook says has been left up to the discretion of each publisher.
“We were fine with not imposing limits on the amount of content,” said Washington Post Publisher Fred Ryan. “We figured, if you’re in, you’re in.”
The Post has also published its full content on other platforms, like Flipboard. But the move is a symbolic one for Facebook, which is now one of several platforms that want to host digital publishers’ stuff.
Snapchat has its Discover feature, Apple just launched Apple News, and Google and Twitter are working on an open-source version of the concept that they are explicitly pitching as a response to Facebook.
About that last part: In a blog post Facebook is publishing today, the service takes pains to argue there’s nothing proprietary about what it’s doing, and that it is using the same code that Web publishers already use to put out its Instant Articles. In Facebook engineer-speak, Instant Articles are “defined in an open format.”
This is unlikely to appease people who have a theological opposition to the idea that big platforms will have a hand in aggregating, distributing and merchandising content, but you guys can have that debate somewhere else.
In the meantime, all of this remains mostly theoretical for most of you, since up until now only a slice of the Internet has been able to see Facebook’s Instant Articles. Only 12.5 percent of the service’s iPhone users have had access, but the company says that it’s going to start pushing that number up, and that it still has plans to offer the service for Android users, as well.
And what does any of that mean for publishers that hand their stuff to Facebook? The company has yet to release any numbers about the articles’ performance, though Michael Reckhow, the executive overseeing the project, says he’s seeing “really good engagement” from the format. Which is what you’d expect, because it loads the articles instantly onto people’s iPhones, instead of giving them a chance to abandon the stories while they wait for them to load.
“Everything that we make faster, it makes people engage more,” he said.
Okay. But how much more engagement? Reckhow won’t say, though people at Facebook say the metric they’re most interested in tracking right now is how much more sharing people do when they encounter an instant article.
In any case, Reckhow says the company won’t have a number to talk about in the near future. “We know there’s a lot of attention on this and on the numbers,” he said. “When we put one out, want it to be a number that’s going to stick.”
Here’s a list of the new partners Facebook has signed on: The Huffington Post, Mashable, MTV, Daily Mail/Elite Daily, Business Insider, Hearst, MLB, Complex, Bleacher Report, MoviePilot, Vox Media (which owns this website), Mic, Gannett, Time Inc., Refinery 29, Bustle, the Dodo, CBS Interactive, IJ Review, NBA and the Blaze.