From TV to Tivo and Hulu, from the mall to Amazon and eCommerce and from newspaper carriers and delivery trucks to online syndication and subscription - distribution of goods, services and information has changed a lot thanks to the internet. Subscription to syndicated publications hasn't changed nearly as much yet as it could in the future, though.
Services like MyYahoo and iGoogle saw some traction and many readers here may have a Google Reader account, but dedicated RSS (really simple syndication) feed reading services have never lived up to their potential to become a mainstream phenomenon. These days many people say they just wait until links get shared on Twitter and they never use a feed reader at all. Late last week Facebook threw its hat in the ring and called on users to use its service as a news feed reader. There are a number of reasons why Facebook could be the strongest online subscription option yet.
Update: Hard numbers have now confirmed that Facebook is already the biggest news reader on the web. In our next post on the subject, we discuss the implications of Facebook's relatively small market share on the future of free thinking.
If you publish content on the web and are looking for maximum distribution, you probably know that Facebook is the promised land. The site is about 10 times as big as Digg or Twitter but so far has been less focused on sharing and clicking links. If Facebook can become the go-to place for hundreds of millions of users to find news (and that seems quite likely, doesn't it) then the company is going to be in a very good position.
Last week, Facebook's Malorie Lucich posted to the company blog encouraging users set up their Facebook accounts for news reading. Lucich suggested becoming a "fan" of news organizations that publish to Facebook, then adding those connections to a dedicated "list" that only displays updates from news sources. You can subscribe that way to ReadWriteWeb here for example, to the New York Times, to the Environmental Justice Foundation or to thousands upon thousands of other organizations that publish regularly, usually with RSS under the hood.
Facebook could make some interface changes that would make this news-reader model all the easier, but this use case is quite compelling already. Facebook will never replace a dedicated RSS reader (or 5) for serious professional use but the fact is that the vast majority of people online have not begun to take advantage of the powerful subscription options that the web now allows. Online syndication has huge disruptive potential, not the least of which is access to larger audiences for smaller voices than they've ever been able to access before.
Is Google Reader better than Facebook for reading feeds? Maybe. There are RSS readers that are better than Google Reader, too. But in terms of change-the-world feed-reading mass adoption - it's most likely to be Facebook that gets millions of mainstream users on board.
Here's why Facebook could become a world-changing subscription platform.
- Hundreds of millions of people already use Facebook to keep up with friends and family. It's an interface they know and love. The newsfeed model has been popularized by Facebook and so encouraging news subscription through it will be infinitely easier than trying to get people to use something new.
- Special messages can be posted directly to readers. Facebook isn't a rigid "publish and subscribe" only channel, it's a broader opportunity for communication than dedicated RSS readers offer. That makes more sense to users and is compelling to publishers.
- Facebook provides a common area to see all discussion around news. Google Reader added a long list of social features to its service over the past few years but social just turned into clutter and weighed the service down. Social + news in Facebook makes sense.
- Reader interaction expands distribution into larger, social contexts. When you "like" or comment on a news item, that shows up on your profile page and in the live feeds of all your friends. Thus they are exposed to whatever publishers you're a fan of. Likewise, as of December the pages you're a fan of (i.e. subscribed to) have been irrevocably visible to the public at large on your profile page. While it is a major privacy problem that people are no longer allowed to have private subscriptions on Facebook, the fact that they are public increases the likelihood that new people will discover those news sources and become fans themselves.
- Partial feeds are good for readers. Back in the early days of dedicated RSS readers, a debate raged about whether publishers should distribute their full news stories in their feeds or whether it's ok to publish just an excerpt and require readers to click through and view ads in order to read the whole story. Geeky early adopters clearly expected full-feeds, but imagine full feeds showing up in your Facebook interface! No way. Nice, scannable excerpts serve readers well there and the requirement that links be clicked and ads viewed serve publishers well, giving them more reason to promote Facebook subscription than many publishers ever felt they had to promote RSS subscription.
- The branded logo of become a fan on Facebook is more powerfully communicative than the community-standard orange broadcast logo of an RSS feed. Click on an RSS icon and most people will just get confused. Click on the logo of the monolithic Facebook and you're subscribed. Sometimes drastically reducing choices makes them more likely to participate. That's not pretty, but it's realistic.
- Finally, "Become a Fan" is a relatively clear call to action. It's emotionally resonate and very obviously free of charge. Most people probably don't even know they are subscribing to updates when they become a fan of something on Facebook. Maybe that will change, though. Using the word "subscribe" explicitly harkens a different media era, though, when subscription was almost never free.
Facebook is a publishing, syndication and subscription platform where the interests of the reader, the publisher and the platform provider are all in sync. That's powerful. Subscription through Facebook may be sterile, hermetically sealed and controlled by one too-powerful communication company but it works. Facebook clearly has an opportunity to become the subscription mechanism of choice for hundreds of millions of readers and for millions of publishing organizations. That's a good place for any company to be.
You can subscribe to (and discuss the future of the Web with) ReadWriteWeb on Facebook here.