Sterile Future for Open Web?

David Barton Adblocking, Uncategorized

Corralled in Clean Rooms
Facebook Instant Articles caused a shiver (of excitement or terror, depending on your stance) to ripple through the Internet a few months ago. Facebook cleverly billed Instant Articles as a way to combat slow external sites on mobile devices:

Leveraging the same technology used to display photos and videos quickly in the Facebook app, articles load instantly, as much as 10 times faster than the standard mobile web. Facebook Instant Articles

Sounds great, but it would be disingenuous to claim that Instant Articles is not also aimed at keeping Facebook users corralled ever more effectively. TechCrunch has even argued that Facebook Instant Articles is the “culmination of Facebook’s quest to absorb the Internet”. Offended and threatened by the “messy Internet”, Facebook has certainly made every effort (with Pages and Apps) over the years to create a friendly but increasingly sterile “clean room” for its users, purged of the wildness of external websites. Facebook is effectively creating a modern version of the walled gardens once offered by services such as AOL and Compuserve in the 1990s.

Facebook: the Smarter Gardener
The era of walled gardens seemed to have ended just a few years ago, overwhelmed by the promise and excitement offered by the ever-changing, flexible, messy open web:

Faced with competition from this open web, AOL lost…running a closed service with custom content and interfaces was no match for the wild frontier of the web. Maybe if they’d done some things differently, they would have fared better, but they still would have lost. In competitive markets, open and messy trumps closed and controlled in the long run. Jason Kottke

We recently commented on how websites have become bloated and slow, partly because of unwieldy ad networks and unnecessary tracking. This ongoing rehash of the world wide wait has given Facebook the perfect excuse to push Instant Articles, especially as it offers the growing number of mobile users an improved experience, with no fear of getting bogged down in the horror of a non-responsive website.

Pumping Content into Closed Systems
So users get tidy news and publishers get (so far) decent terms and eyeballs, but it’s a potential Faustian bargain for both. If we ignore for the time being the extensive data collection and profiling that users accept on Facebook, publishers are committing themselves to pumping content into a closed system they don’t control.

Facebook’s Instant Articles isn’t the only closed system hoping to vacuum up content. Flipboard has a lot to lose and is apparently on the defensive, launching new features in a pre-emptive attempt to remain competitive. Snapchat’s relatively new content-packaging Discover feature caters to a notably younger audience, although it’s debatable as to whether Snapchat’s users actually care about or even notice Discover.

Apple has entered the fray on two fronts. Competing with Instant Articles, it has just launched its own News app. More significantly, the recently released iOS 9 has enabled native adblocking, a move which is certain to further stifle the revenue streams of external websites, giving publishers an extra gentle push towards the App Store. Chillingly, adblockers shot up the App Store charts just hours after iOS 9 hit devices around the world. Apple News has signed up dozens of publishers, it is also already making advertisers jump through hoops to reach consumers.

Instant Articles started off surprisingly slowly, possibly because Facebook was cautiously experimenting before rolling out the service to millions. But with big names already publicly championing Instant Articles, it won’t be long before we see the future of news according to Facebook.

However, it’s worth remembering that Apple’s Newstand and Facebook’s Paper were both disappointing for publishers. It could be argued that dropping these has been part of an iterative process in which improvements have been made, but such haphazard rebranding shows a disturbing tendency to jump ship in choppy waters. On top of this, the experiences of publishers on those platforms shows that they were dealing with problems of visibility and platform manipulation which had little to do with the quality of their content.

Content by the Gallon
There are inherent risks when any publisher decides to eschew the open web approach of controlling their own site, building their brand on their own terms, deciding on how they want to interact with their users and choosing what news is worth reporting. Journalistic integrity comes under question, censorship can become an issue, “gaming” the platform can become the most important deciding factor in terms of choosing content. Can any serious publisher look forward to a day when content has been relegated to a commodity to be delivered by the gallon to distributors?

It might already be too late to avoid this future, as “when it comes to sheer tonnage of eyeballs, nothing rivals Facebook” for sending traffic to news sites. Facebook could just decide to passively starve out non-participating sites. That fear sounds familiar:

In the early days, when AOL was dominant, the service preyed on the publishers’ fear that if they didn’t put their content inside the walled garden of AOL, their content would be invisible. That strategy benefited AOL in the short run, but no one prospered in the long run. David Carr on the New York Times Blog

Cyberpunks in Hedgerows
Generations X and Y could gradually come to treat the Internet as a form of passive television channel, with content outside the Facebook wall seen as dangerous and confusing. As Jonathan Zittrain has been warning us for several years, we may already be in the last days of the “generative Internet”, doomed to a world of sterile and tethered appliances that serve us a tragically limited slice of what the web can be.

It’s a bleak scenario for those who remember the promise of the early Internet, but we can always hope that Generation Z will not be so timid and willing to compromise. The continued existence of the open web may ultimately depend on children born in the era of Facebook but desperate to escape from its embrace, future cyberpunks flourishing in the chaotic hedgerows left untended between corporate content enclaves.

If post-millennials eventually choose a more open path, the question is whether those publishers who decided to retreat within the wall can ever emerge with their brand and self-respect untarnished.