How Facebook Turned Unloved ‘Paper’ Into ‘Instant Articles’
How Facebook Turned Unloved ‘Paper’ Into ‘Instant Articles’
FOUR MONTHS AFTER its debut, Facebook Paper was apparently losing eyeballs.
According to online research outfit Comscore, the audience for this extravagant rethink of the Facebook News Feed had dropped to about 119,000 people—a pittance compared to the well over a billion people using Facebook proper—and various pundits, including the Internet watchers atBuzzfeed, questioned not only the app’s impact, but even “the ability of the new tech giants to launch small experimental projects.”
Today, those doubts were answered rather summarily when Facebook announced that anyone using the company’s iPhone app will now have access to Instant Articles, a service that loads stories into the main Facebook News Feed with unusual speed—-not to mention unusual fidelity and, yes, extravagance. Instant Articles, you see, is the direct descendant of Facebook Paper. Led by ex-Apple men Mike Matas and Kimon Tsinteris, the team that built Paper also built Instant Articles, using many of the same tools, techniques, and fundamental ideas.
In the words of Mike Reckhow, the former Microsoft and Amazon employee who serves as product manager for both Paper and Instant Articles, Paper was all about “how do you tell incredible stories on a phone?” So is Instant Articles. It just does this on a much larger scale.
Though Paper’s audience is still small, the impact of its ideas is significant—so significant, that it extends well beyond Facebook. Big publishers such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and, dare we say, Buzzfeedare now publishing Instant Articles straight to the Facebook News Feed. And since Facebook’s new publishing tech rolled out to a limited number of users this past May, three other giants—Apple and Twitter and Google—have unveiled similar technology meant to speed and enhance the delivery of online news.
As news stories, feature stories, photos, and other media moves not only from the printed page but from desktops and laptops onto the mobile devices we carry in our pockets, this shift towards faster mobile delivery is a welcome one is the publishing world. “Audiences are coming from all different places,” says Cory Haik of The Washington Post. “That’s the point of all this.” And with so many companies now pushing these ideas forward, it’s a change that will only accelerate.
Making Magazines Mobile
Paper was beautiful. When you opened a photo, you could explore it simply by moving your phone to and fro. It responded to other movements and finger gestures with all sorts of interactive animations that made it feel far more alive than the typical app. Able to run code on the iPhone’s multiple processor “cores” simultaneously, it could render images and animations with extreme speed. But it suffered from the same problem as the Facebook News Feed: When you clicked on a story from an outside publisher like The Times or Buzzfeed, it took ages to load.
As the team looked for ways of improving the app, Tsinteris says, this is one of the problems the team homed in on. “How could make links load faster?” was the question they asked. The answer, Reckhow says, is Instant Articles.
In June of last year, the team started exploring technology that could deliver outside stories with as much speed and gloss as the company delivers its own content. They weren’t completely sure it was possible, but about four months later, a Paper engineer named Ben Cunningham showed off a prototype that held some promise. “He showed a publisher’s content getting piped through the Facebook stack,” Reckhow says, “and rendering natively, with the same rendering architecture that renders Paper.”
In effect, Cunningham showed off a system where publishers could use familiar tools to build their online articles and push them directly to the massive computer data centers that underpin Facebook. The company could then load these articles—and their various photos and videos and other extras—to the “content delivery network” it operates inside so many internet service providers across the globe, pushing the articles closer to you and anyone else using Facebook. This meant that, as you scrolled through your News Feed, Facebook could “pre-fetch” these articles—that is, download as much as possible before you actually got to them.
The team needed many additional months to perfect the setup, but this is how the system now operates. And though they load quickly, these articles are far from static. They include videos that automatically play as you scroll through your News Feed. You’ll find interactive maps and charts. You can pan across both photos and videos simply by moving your phone back and forth, much as you can on Facebook Paper.
Reckhow and crew call this “The Ken Turns Effect,” a nod to the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, known for the way his films pan and zoom across still photos. But Matas uses a different analogy. He calls it a digital version of a magazine gatefold. “You open up and see a large image,” he says. It brings magazines more completely into the mobile world.
Part of the trick is that in building Instant Articles, the team used many of the same tools it used to build Paper—tools designed by the team itself. This includes a creation calledAsyncDisplayKit, which provides a way of executing code across the multiple “cores”—individual processing units—inside the latest iPhone chips. This is what allows Paper to render text, animations, audio, and video so quickly. “It basically takes advantage of modern-day devices,” Tsinteris says. “Modern day devices don’t have a single brain. Rather, they have multiple brains.”
The company has also drawn on a tool called Pop, also built for Paper, that renders the many animations served by Instant Articles, including the “likes” that bounce across the screen as you look as who else has read the same article at hand or the way videos morph from portrait mode to landscape mode as you tilt your phone.
The use of tools like Async and Pop show, in wonderfully direct fashion, how “small experiments” can find an enormous audience at a place like Facebook. Paper isn’t widely used. It never was. But the idea from the beginning was to “revisit Facebook as an experience on mobile devices—effectively from the ground up,” Facebook engineer Scott Goodson told us in the wake of the Paper launch. And now, the company has fed this work back into Facebook.
Paper was the first app developed under the aegis of virtual operation called the Facebook Creative Labs. And as Instant Articles roll onto all iPhones and provides an added source of revenue for the company—Facebook takes a cut if publishers use its system to target ads via these articles—the labs have proven their worth.
Roll Your Own Articles
But this isn’t just about Facebook. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. After all, Facebook isn’t the only place we read articles.
The good news is that others have now pushing in the same direction—perhaps spurred on by Facebook. Apple and Twitter have built services for their own platforms, whileGoogle is offering a tool called AMP that publishers can use to speed the delivery of articles on practically any platform. “Rather than have each publisher create their own application, we created a best of breed web application for rendering content that every publisher can use,” says Google vice president of engineering David Besbris. “It works the same as other webpages. It renders in all recent browsers and works inside all the different application contexts on your phone.”
Yes, Facebook’s Instant Articles only achieve their full effect on Facebook. But in building these articles, publishers use standard HTML tags—the lingua franca of the worldwide web. That means these articles can appear anywhere else without recoding (though in a slightly less dynamic form). And because Facebook has “open sourced” tools like AsyncDisplayKit and Pop—making them freely available to the world at large—publishers could build their own version of Instant Articles. For publishers, the options are now myriad, thanks, at least in part, to a little used app called Paper.