Facebook announced today that it’s making its Instant Articles platform compatible with competing web publishing standards like Google AMP and Apple News. That way, publishers can build first in Instant Articles and then push near-identical versions of their content to other platforms.
This might help cut down on news organizations’ distribution costs, but it’s also a big deal for the tech industry’s platform wars. Because this announcement doubles as a tacit admission from Facebook that its Instant Articles format is not as popular as other forms of platform publishing, as well as a move to undermine the success of Google AMP and Apple News by incentivizing publishers to create one version of a thing and push it out everywhere. If Facebook can ensure that everyone publishes equally to all platforms, it won’t have to worry about Google or Apple gaining an edge.
Tech companies are competing to control the future of web publishing
“The SDK already enables developers to easily integrate publishing Instant Articles into their content management systems. By supporting a gateway to generate content across platforms, we’re also making it easy for publishers to apply some of the custom styling templates in AMP and Apple News that they have created in the Instant Articles Style Editor,” explains Facebook’s Piyush Mangalick, a partner engineering director, in a blog post. “For example the custom formats, like fonts, colors and captions, that publishers have designed in the Style Editor, will be closely mirrored in the other formats.”
In other words: if you build once on Instant Articles, you won’t have to worry about stylizing the article for AMP or Apple News. Facebook’s SDK will take care of all the heavy lifting. “This new flexibility with Instant Articles is part of our commitment to open standards of collaboration with the community,” writes Mangalick. “Our goal is to give publishers control over extending and modifying the Instant Articles building blocks to be the best storytellers on every platform.”
Of course, that’s not the only goal Facebook has. Like so many aspects of the media business over the last three decades, the future of web publishing is currently being decided not by journalism organizations, but by the platform-owning tech companies that collect and distribute the world’s information. More recently, this has manifested itself in a standards battle currently being waged by Facebook, Google, and Apple, all of which own a proprietary format that transforms articles into clean, readable formats on mobile.
Facebook’s Instant Articles, launched back in 2015, has struggled to grow, while Google’s AMP format has engulfed huge swaths of the mobile web. Apple News, meanwhile, takes advantage of its high-priority placement on iOS devices as a native app to push the iPhone maker’s own walled-garden approach to news delivery. For Facebook, this is mostly an issue of the ever-constant identity crisis pulling it between its dominant social network and platform roots and the ways in which it continues to resemble a modern media empire. Some publishers have fled Instant Articles mostly because of Facebook’s own inability to help those organizations grow audiences and make money, both goals that happen to be at ends with Facebook’s constant News Feed tweaking and prioritization of video over text.
This is also a debate about the very nature of the open web
While the ramifications for news organizations are monumental, this is also a ontological debate about the very nature and future of the web. Google, which makes a vast majority of its revenue through web advertising, wants people to continue using its search engine. So it’s continued making the Chrome and search experience more reader-friendly with AMP. Facebook would very much like people to consider its app a modern-day gateway to the rest of the internet, a destination for consuming anything and everything you would otherwise have to seek out on the mobile web. And Apple doesn’t care about the future of the web so much as it’s interested in making the iOS the best way to do anything on a smartphone, news reading included. All of this means controlling the flow of content, a huge chunk of which is article links to news websites.
So the question now is whether Facebook’s changes will make publishers come back to its platform, even as it strikes deals with media companies to produce original video that it will likely prioritize over the Instant Article links of third-party news publishers. As it stands, Facebook’s only option now is to hope publishers are so wary of any one tech platform that they publish to all of them simultaneously. While that’s not necessarily great for building a healthy relationship with the journalism business, it does keep Instant Articles from completely ceding ground to competitors.