How Facebook’s News Feed Will Change on Mobile

Originally published in The New York Times on May 13 2015 By Vindu Goel
How Facebook’s News Feed Will Change on Mobile
As my colleague Ravi Somaiya and I reported on Wednesday, Facebook is finally taking the wraps off its instant articles project. The social network will begin hosting some news stories directly on its service, with the intention of serving them up quickly to iPhone users with multimedia enhancements that are not available on the web version of Facebook.
What does that mean in practice?
For those not using Facebook on an iPhone, anything published as an instant article will show up in your news feed the way it normally would. But if you have an iPhone (no Android version yet), you might see the image in the cover photo move, like the motion in one of the newspaper images in a Harry Potter movie.
For example, the first article from NBC News, about California almond growers, shows a sprinkler watering an almond tree. “You can have these living, breathing photographs that become video,” said Mike Matas, the Facebook product designer for instant articles.
Once you click on the cover, the article loads almost instantly. Photos appear in high resolution, and you can zoom in with a touch or tilt the phone to see more of the image — a feature borrowed from Facebook’s Paper app. Videos play automatically as you scroll past them. Depending on the publisher and the article, the photos might include embedded audio, such as a narrator describing what is in the photo, or a geographic tag that lets you pull up a map of where it was taken.
You can “like” individual elements of the story, follow the authors or the news organization on Facebook and even share the story on other platforms, such as Twitter. The whole experience is “buttery smooth,” said Declan Moore, chief media officer of the National Geographic Society, whose first instant article is a photo-rich story about the quest to create a hardier honeybee.
News publishers say the instant articles are a way to make their work stand out on Facebook, while still giving them credit for the traffic from advertisers and measurement services like comScore and allowing them to collect the kind of data they get from visitors to their own sites.
Facebook has worked hard to integrate the technology with publishers’ content management systems. Essentially, the social network reads special tags coded into the story to reformat it, but refers back to the underlying link so that reading it counts as a mobile web view and the viewer can easily share the article with people outside Facebook.
“It kind of takes the best of our storytelling and journalism, in all of its multimedia forms, and renders that beautifully within the Facebook experience in a way that allows us to get traffic credit,” said Julian March, senior vice president for innovation and editorial at NBC News.
Perhaps the biggest barrier for Facebook to overcome with instant articles was the question of revenue.
When the company introduced the option of uploading videos to Facebook last September, it promised that videos would play more quickly and begin running automatically when people scrolled past them in the news feed. But it did not allow professional publishers to wrap their usual advertising around the videos.
With instant articles, Facebook is allowing publishers — including The New York Times — to include ads, typically up to one large banner ad or two smaller ads per 500 words. Publishers can sell their own ads and keep all of the money or let the company sell ads through its Facebook Audience Network, in which case Facebook will take a 30 percent cut.
“We are going to be selling our ads,” Mr. Moore said. In National Geographic’s first article, the ads are simply invitations to join the society. “But there is no doubt that people are spending more and more time in these communities. There is an opportunity to introduce our partners on the advertising side to this.”
Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s vice president for partnerships, said the company spent a lot of time talking to publishers, not just about what they needed from a business perspective but also what they needed to make instant articles fit easily into their work flows.
Mr. Osofsky said the version of instant articles unveiled on Wednesday was just a start. “There’s a lot of work to do going forward,” he said.