Readability vs Instant Articles: how does Content save itself?

← back to the blog

When I was in University there appeared - quite suddenly - new Thing called Napster, that allowed people to obtain Content (in this case audio files) for free; whereas just a few years before we had to pay for it. Or at least, the process of obtaining for free had previously been arduous enough that many were willing to pay for it.

This new Thing, we were told, was dangerous because so much Content was being obtained for free that it was threatening to destabalize an entire industry, and the Content Creators (musicians), failing to be adequately rewarded for their work, would undoubtedly stop Creating.

Then, almost as suddenly, a funny thing happened. After Napster disappeared, new ways of getting audio Content for almost free appeared, the music industry adjusted to its new normal and we all moved onto other things. The Internet in this instance was like smallpox: decimating an industry when it first arrived, quickly reaching equilibrium when it had been interacting with its hosts long enough. The lesson surely has to be that music fans are willing to pay for music, just not as much as they once were, and not in formats that are by comparison awkward to use, not to mention carry around.

I have often felt the same is true of written content online. I - and I'm not alone in this - believe that content creators (journalists, or whomever) should be compensated, but that spending what we previously would have on newspaper subscriptions only in one place doesn't work for us. We get our content from too many different sources, and so we pay for it the only way that we can - with eyeballs occasionally crossing paths with sponsored ads. I don't so much mind the ads themselves: they were part of the newspaper industry long before the Internet anyway, but this business model has been slowly killing their industry. Less like smallpox and more like cancer.

A fair deal would be to find a way to pay for the content without the ads - ideally from as broad a base of content providers as possible. This is exactly experiment tried by Readability, a scraping and reformatting service that offered content providers a share of the subscription fees paid to them. The experiment failed - not because people didn't use the paid version of Readability, but because the content providers never showed up to collect their money.

So imagine my surprise in the discussion surrounding Instant Articles. Instant Articles allows Facebook to host articles from content providers on their own platform. When you click on an article in your news feed, you'll go to the Facebook-scraped version of the article instead of the content provider's website. And how much is Facebook paying for this privilege? Nothing. The content providers are paying them.

What possible gain could providers get from such a deal? The only possible revenue source is that the providers' ads will display along with the article. The ad-based business model that has been working so poorly can only get worse (because the providers lose control of their own content, and with it the ability to link within their own site). The proposed advantage is that articles will load faster and have a more streamlined user experience than on the providers own website.

This is of course exactly what Readability offered: the only difference being that Readability was paying them. It's hard to escape the conclusion that content providers have in fact dug their own grave: they have created such terrible experiences for users that they are effectively paying Facebook to solve it for them.

The main counter argument to this is that the web is just bad: slow and ill-suited for mobile. The Facebook app (or apps), at least on mobile, will be able to keep users in the native world when they navigate to an Instant Article, avoiding all the web's problems. I can't buy this. The web is, at it's heart, a document delivery system, and there is nothing about reading a news article that needs to be heavy-weight or over-engineered. Of course if you ignore page performance mobile users will be the first to feel the pain. Of course if you abuse the web, the web will perform poorly.

Readability made sense, was fair, and failed. Instant Articles is insane, unfair, and will probably succeed, if only because of the size and power of Facebook. (Yes, Google Reader also failed. But Google never interupted anyone's web browsing with an offer to view the article on Reader). How do we save this?