The Walled Gardens Of The Web Are Growing

Facebook’s long-anticipated Instant Articles initiative just went live, enabling a select number of media companies to publish their content inside Facebook rather than on their own sites.

Ostensibly, it’s so we the users can get reading faster. “Instant Articles load as much as ten times faster than standard Web articles,” enthuses the announcement post. “Once there, new features like tilt-to-pan photos, auto-play video, embedded audio captions, and interactive maps let you explore the story in beautiful new ways.”

All of which is no doubt true, but it’s another step in a growing movement towards segmentation and the siloing of writing, video and other content on the Web—and Facebook isn’t the only one at it.

See also: Why Facebook Messenger Is A Platform—And WhatsApp Isn’t

For now Instant Articles only appear on Facebook’s iOS app, and then only from a handful of media partners: the New York Times, National Geographic, BuzzFeed, NBC, the Atlantic, the Guardian, BBC News, Spiegel, and Bild. The basic idea makes a kind of sense on mobile, where swapping between apps takes longer.

But Facebook’s long-term goal is to keep users inside its own walled garden, and that has implications on every platform.

To this end we’ve seen Facebook launching Messenger apps, playing around with in-app search tools and challenging YouTube with some more sophisticated video features. Even embedded YouTube clips aren’t welcome in Facebook’s house, let alone links that actually take people to other places.

Stay Right Where You Are

Google may be feeling the heat from Facebook, but its aims are largely the same. Where once its intentions were to point you to the best link on the Web, now it seems more eager to keep you exactly where you are.

Movie and music information pops up right on the results page; words are defined instantly; “how to reset your iPhone” shows a list of instructions before a list of Web addresses. (To be fair, Google has been aiming for this sort of “perfect” search result for a long time.)

See also: Why The EU Hates Google—Its Goal Is Still A Single Search Result

Meanwhile Twitter has added native image hosting, native video hosting and a whole stack of cards to ensure that people spend more time in the stream and less time clicking out to YouTube or Imgur or anywhere else.

Twitter and Google aren’t host outside material on their networks—at least not yet. But the pattern is the same: One stop for all your browsing needs and less of a reason to venture out onto the wilds of the Web.

We can’t blame these public companies from trying to retain user eyeballs. But we should resist a slide into a scenario where the Web consists of little more than a handful of major players, and where anything outside their walls withers and dies.

AOL Version 2.0

Verizon’s acquisition of AOL is a timely reminder of a company who long ago tried to replace the Web. In AOL’s heyday it wasn’t uncommon to see AOL keywords listed alongside (or instead of) actual URLs on posters and marketing material, in much the same way a Twitter handle might be today.

The intimation was that you could head to AOL and enter a simple keyword rather than complicate the issue with dots and forward slashes and difficult-to-remember text strings. Of course, the Web won out anyway, and we don’t hear much about AOL keywords any more.

With 1.4 billion users and growing, Facebook has a much better chance of becoming the Web for the majority of people who use it. That may do wonders for page loading times and tilt-to-pan photos, but it means we’re all playing by Mark Zuckerberg’s rules, both publishers and readers alike.

That’s not a privilege that Facebook, Google or anyone else should have. But with content creators surging en mass to wherever the viewers are, and the viewers looking for the best (and fastest-loading) content, it may be that it’s already too late to stop the process.

Image courtesy of Facebook

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