Facebook is important to media companies but Instant Articles is not a threat

Facebook Instant Articles.

Facebook has taken a potentially bold step into the world of publishing by announcing “Instant Articles”. Instant Articles allows media companies to publish articles in a format that loads directly in a mobile user’s stream without launching a browser and navigating to the home site. Embedded videos play instantly and photos in the article can be panned when the mobile phone is tipped left or right.

With Instant Articles, users get a better experience when reading these types of articles and Facebook gets to keep the users within its app. In return, media sites keep ad revenue generated in this way and will also continue to get statistics of user access to the articles. On the surface, everyone should be happy.

Critics however, have interpreted the move as a step in the direction of Facebook exerting more control over content and potentially building its capabilities as a media company in its own right. The move, they say, leaves media companies exposed to potential censorship by Facebook and exerting other control over the content at some later point in time.

Perhaps what should be of more concern however, is the general belief that news presented to users in this way will serve to enhance the so-called “Filter Bubble”. This is where people are shown only news that generally agrees with their world-view, reinforcing existing biases and preventing people from ever getting a balanced view of the news. The Filter Bubble is a consequence of the algorithms that Facebook and others use to prioritise the stories that are shown in a user’s stream. Preference systems work to show users things that they like and are interested in and hide anything that they don’t.

Despite concerns that news presented on social media may skew what people see, the reality is that an increasing number of people get some, or all, of their news in this way, especially on Facebook. In the US, 30% of adults get news from Facebook and are increasingly interacting with that news, by sharing and commenting on it. For many media sites, Facebook is the largest external referral source of readers of their articles.

Possibly countering the argument that social media may provide a filtered view for users who access news in this way, is that it doesn’t stop them accessing news from other sites. 42% of people who consume news on Facebook also watch local television news, compared to 46% of all US adults who get their news predominantly in this way. Also, half of Facebook news readers report getting news on six or more topics. Of these topics, at the top of the list is entertainment news with news about politics and government ranked 4th.

Newspapers and cable news continue to struggle with declining user numbers, as people switch to local and network news.

Social media is changing the way that we discover and interact with news against a backdrop of a continued decline in readers of traditional newspapers and their online sites. The fact that users pick up on stories highlighted in a Facebook, or Twitter, stream is not particularly surprising as it simply represents a more convenient way of accessing things that are likely to be interesting to a reader and their social network. Specific stories can be picked out without going through a collection of other stories that are less, or no, interest to the reader.

As such, Instant Articles is not in and of itself a particularly revolutionary leap in how news is presented on social media. It is a technological improvement that makes the experience of reading an article more pleasant but will have minimal impact on how users consume the news. How that happens is already being determined by Facebook’s algorithms and the mechanisms for social recommendation.

Whether media outlets go to the effort of formatting their articles as Instant Articles is yet to be seen. It may be that they pick key articles but leave the bulk of what they do in the existing format.

This is an industry that is still on the whole largely conservative in how they approach technology and as with many advances in the past, they will likely, hedge their bets and hope they don’t inadvertently pick the losing number.


David Glance owns shares in Facebook.

Despite (selfie) appearances, digital has not changed the way we experience travel

New icons of travel: A selfie stick vendor in Florence. Author provided

It might seem easy to claim that digital technology has disrupted the way we plan, prepare and experience, travel. Online travel agencies have experienced massive growth and online is now responsible for over 27% of travel sales. Even this is an underestimate of the impact of digital on the travel industry because a large number of people, especially in business, will interact with their regular travel agents in a digital-only way, never actually seeing or talking to a specific agent.

Itineraries and tickets have become electronic, airline check-in and boarding passes can be accessed through mobile phones and even new devices like the Apple Watch.

After arrival, the use of paper maps to get around has all but disappeared, as travellers increasingly use their mobiles to provide GPS-guided maps and simultaneously act as a digital tour guide based on social-network-fed recommendations.

Whilst it is indeed true that digital is making inroads into all aspects of travel, it is still uncertain as to whether it has fundamentally changed it in any significant way. Digital disruption only occurs when the digital process enables something that was simply not possible in the analogue process it replaces. Simply converting a piece of paper to a document on a mobile is not always changing how that document is actually used. In most cases, it is simply making it available in a (possibly) more convenient format.

Social media has often been claimed to have disrupted the way we travel and experience that journey. We are now able to narrate a journey in real time and share that story with our social network as if they were with us. Indeed, if further evidence of this particular disruption was needed, it could be seen in the recent emergence of selfie stick vendors outside tourist attractions, all around the world. The argument goes that social media has led to an increased incidence of focusing only on our selves, which in turn has driven travellers to lose any meaningful experience of the places they are visiting.

Despite the evidence however, has anything really changed? Before selfie sticks, tourists could be readily identified as the people who carried cameras around their necks and instead of experiencing a destination fully, viewed the world only through their camera lens. The experience was captured to share with friends when they got home. The photos were evidence that a place had been visited, often on brief, whirlwind tours with dozens of way points, in as many days.

Selfie sticks may seem like an external manifestation of our shallowness when it comes to exploring cultures other than our own, but actually, the change is largely cosmetic. In truth, it is very hard to experience a culture in any meaningful way in the typical short stays of most vacations. Whether or not the focus of the photographic evidence of travel is the individual themselves rather than what they actually saw, doesn’t change the underlying experience.

The simple fact of the matter is that most of us were always shallow travellers. Selfie sticks are nothing new in that regard.

Social sharing has been touted as a more tempting candidate of digital disruption. Social sharing, by putting travellers in direct contact with locals has enabled a “real travel experience”. trip4real offers such an experience with locals providing cooking lessons, guided tours or some social interaction with a local resident. Whilst it is true that these types of companies have broadened the ability of locals to provide insight and interaction with a visitor, in many ways, it is simply an expansion of the services provided by traditional tour guides. Tour guides are generally locals too, and interacting with them is really no different to interacting with a self-employed tour guide who advertises their services through one of the newer social sharing networks.

Fundamentally, travel is a physical and analogue experience. It consists of taking our physical selves to a different environment and experiencing it through the constraints of time and convenience. The trade-off is that the experience will never be the same as that of a person who has spent years studying, living and working in that place. And that is even before considering not knowing the language or fully understanding the local culture and norms. Digital may have changed some aspects of that experience, but mostly in a simple like-for-like way. In the end, digital has brought around superficial differences to travel that doesn’t make our experience with a new land any more profound.

Europe’s Digital Single Market needs to foster tech startups and a global view

Europe Digital Single Market.

Europe has launched its strategy for a Digital Single Market throughout its member countries. The success of this strategy relies on the ability of European lawmakers and politicians removing barriers to digital trade and creating an environment to foster the growth in digital platforms and skills necessary to support a fast growing digital economy.

It is easy for others, especially the US, to see the Digital Single Market strategy as a pretext to regulate and restrict the popularity and pervasiveness of foreign companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook and Netflix. Certainly, the European Commission will need to demonstrate that its focus is more on enabling rather than simply protecting a future industry.

However, one of the central “pillars” of the strategy is to remove barriers to international online trade. This means removing the practice of “geo-blocking” which restricts content to certain countries, or places extra costs on those accessing these services from outside those boundaries. Achieving this will require a levelling between countries of their different regimes of value added tax, laws for consumer protection and copyright, and a host of other legislative and commercial idiosyncrasies.

Setting aside the hurdles of the Digital Single Market outlined in the agenda document, the largest real challenge is in the fact that 54% of e-commerce traffic in Europe is with services based in the US whereas only 4% of traffic in one European country is for a service in another European country. Creating a Digital Single Market is all well and good but if it mainly benefits US companies it is going to be far less strategic for Europe.

In the light of the dominance of US services in Europe, the fear held by the US that Europe’s Digital Single Market will essentially try and restrict this dominance are possibly not unfounded. The simple fact is that those firms succeed because that is what European consumers want. Making it simpler for those services to operate in Europe still has advantages to the EU because it enables firms like Amazon and Apple to operate more seamlessly across all of Europe, helping to keep costs down.

To truly benefit from the efficiencies of opening up the digital markets in Europe, what actually needs to happen is to apply this strategy globally. All of the points made within the Digital Single Market strategy are valid steps to removing barriers to online trade. The limitation of the strategy is that it stops at Europe’s borders, when the Internet that underpins the online world recognises no such boundary.

For a global Digital Single Market to be successful, in addition to the goals outlined in Europe’s strategy, there would need to be agreement on tax avoidance schemes that US companies in particular are carrying out when doing business globally. Ironically, these practices operate in Europe by leveraging different transfer pricing schemes between parts of their company set up in different countries. Allowing foreign multi-nationals to dominate in a local market is one thing but it adds insult to injury that tax revenue from business carried out in one particular country could be lost to another, or not collected at all.

Of course, the main aim of the European Commission in proposing the Digital Single Market agenda is to provide a platform that is conducive to surfacing digital entrepreneurs and growing new companies based in Europe. The entire world outside of Silicon Valley wants to emulate the success of that area by creating innovation centers that foster startups and the next Google or Uber. The trouble is that despite cities around the world trying to do this, they have so-far largely failed to bring together the ingredients that exist in California. At the heart of this though, it may simply be a case of not enough money being invested in seeding startups. Startups in London, which is considered the most successful of European startup locations, still only attract 6% of the funding amounts that startups in Silicon Valley do.

In the normal tech company life-cycle, successful companies produce a large number of wealthy individuals who not only have a specific set of skills in creating tech startups but have the money to invest either in their own projects or others. The conditions for this were driven by the opportunities created by stock markets and the insatiable appetite for tech stocks. Reproducing this elsewhere, is going to take time, money, an appetite for risk and the acceptance of failure. Unfortunately, none of that is part of the European Digital Single Market strategy. Whilst the aims of their agenda may be a good start, even if successful, it is still a long way from actually seeing any benefits result from it.