Facebook: The other Internet

How Facebook is building the website to end all websites and the app to end all apps

Facebook's Instant Articles

You can do almost everything online. Most people spend most of their web time doing just three things: communicating, buying things and consuming content.

Social networking, emailing, blogging -- that's all communication.

Shopping on Amazon, downloading apps -- that's all buying things.

Watching videos, listening to audio podcasts, playing games, reading this article -- that's all content consumption.

People use search engines and other means to discover places to do these things. But Facebook envisions an end to all that. It envisions a world in which people use only one site or one app: Facebook.

What Facebook learned from its corporate headquarters

Facebook, like Google and other Silicon Valley giants, doesn't want its employees to leave. Instead, it wants them staying at work and spending all their time helping the company take over the world.

Facebook's brand-new building, which is near its previous headquarters in Menlo Park, is called MPK 20. The new campus, which was designed by famous architect is Frank Gehry, is smaller than the old campus. The goal is to connect them with an underground tunnel, turning them into a super headquarters.

Facebook's "office space" is 434,000 square feet on a single floor. It has the largest open floor plan in the world and nobody has an office. (Like Facebook itself, the headquarters represents the world's largest space of its kind and no one has privacy.)

The roof is covered by a nine-acre park, complete with walkways and gardens. You don't have to leave to go hiking, jogging or spend time outdoors.

The way Silicon Valley companies like Facebook keep employees at work is by taking things that normal people do in the wider world and bringing them into the "campus."

Facebook employees have no need to leave work to go to Starbucks. Facebook provides cafes and coffee stands. They have gyms, gourmet food courts serving any food you can imagine (and it's all free). There are rock climbing walls, workshops where employees can make things for fun, free bikes to use anytime, a music studio, barber shops and so on.

That's exactly the same strategy Facebook is executing to keep users from leaving, too. Find out what people are doing when they're not on Facebook, and bring those things inside Facebook.

Why you'll never have to leave Facebook

It became clear last week that Facebook is systematically taking activities that people do outside Facebook and bringing them into the social network.

Of course, Facebook is both building and buying the world of communication. The main and original purpose of Facebook itself was social networking -- the main form of communication.

Facebook has 1.4 billion monthly users. After spinning out and requiring a separate Messenger app, Messenger now has more than 600 million users. WhatsApp recently reported that it passed the 800 million user mark. Instagram has well over 300 million users.

That means Facebook has a theoretical 3.1 billion people who use Facebook for communication. Coincidentally, that's the population of the entire Internet.

Of course, there's a massive overlap here. The total number of humans using Facebook products to communicate is probably around 2 billion, give or take a few hundred million. But no other company has numbers like this. The company dominates online communication.

Facebook is rapidly developing a system for its users to buy things on Facebook without leaving Facebook. Its "Buy" button places instant commerce inside ads. Expect Facebook over time to replace app stores, catalogs like Amazon.com and more.

Then we come to content. Facebook famously encourages uploading videos, which auto-plays them in your feed. Watching viral videos and looking at GIF and photo memes is one of the most popular activities online, and a massive amount of that already happens on Facebook.

In fact, Facebook claims that videos are watched on Facebook 4 billion times per day, up from 3 billion just in January and up from 1 billion in September. The rate of the video-watching behavior on Facebook is truly astounding.

Sure, videos can be imported into and watched on Facebook. But what about articles? The standard procedure on social networks from the beginning has been to paste a link into a post, possibly with some summary or contextual blather.

The problem with links from Facebook's perspective is that it takes you somewhere else.

And that's why Facebook's big announcement last week was so astonishing, brilliant and powerful and in support of their mission to keep you on Facebook as long as you’re online or most of your online hours.

Facebook announced a feature called Instant Articles. They tout as the benefits the fact that articles will load 10 times faster than if you have to link to a browser app. They also highlight the fact that the media experience of looking at articles in this system is rich, with movement and sound and the publisher's own design and typefaces.

To look at Instant Articles as mere speed and beauty is to entirely miss what Facebook is starting here. It's nothing less than a coup to replace content websites. Instead of sending users out, Facebook is bringing the publishers in.

Inside Facebook's app, no browser is needed to read shared articles. Tapping anywhere on the summary, headline or photo instantly opens the full article. Facebook is using some killer engineering to directly access the phone's processors, enabling rich, multimedia content that normally feels slow and bloated to be zippy and instant.

Instant Articles is an offer publishers can't refuse. For starters, Facebook has the audience with a viral sharing upside. Instant Articles look way better and perform way better than articles posted on the publishers' websites. Facebook lets publishers keep 100% of the ads publishers sell to appear with the articles. And publishers have all the control about what they publish, when and how.

Instant Articles is not yet a mass phenomenon like Facebook videos are because it currently works only on iOS devices, and the articles come only from nine publishers: The New York Times, The Atlantic, NBC, National Geographic, BuzzFeed, The Guardian, BBC News, Spiegel and Bild.

Once Instant Articles is on more platforms and involves more publishers, everyone will want to share articles on Facebook this way.

It’s a brilliant strategy. With the Big Three Internet activities brought in house, there won't be any reason for most people to leave Facebook while they're on the Internet.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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