Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) had a great 2015. Shares of the social networking giant surged nearly 40% as the company delivered a steady stream of strong earnings reports and introduced a number of new features and products. It's a testament to the strength of Facebook's year that it experienced no obvious stumbles in 2015, like its ill-fated play for Android phones, Facebook Home, or doomed copycat efforts like Facebook Poke (an obvious, ultimately failed attempt to ape Snapchat back in 2012).
Still, not every new feature Facebook introduced this year was a stunning success. While it remains in its infancy, Facebook's Instant Articles feature -- despite attracting a great deal of attention when it was announced in the first half of the year -- just hasn't achieved much in 2015.
Bringing news to the Facebook platform
In May, Facebook announced Instant Articles, a new initiative from the company that promised deeper integration between the media and its platform. Publishers that opt into the program have their articles hosted directly on Facebook's servers, rather than their own websites.
Instant Articles benefit Facebook in a number of ways, most notably by increasing the quality of its platform on mobile devices. Instant Articles load nearly instantaneously, while web-based articles can take several seconds to appear. (Try it yourself: Open the Facebook mobile app and load an article from a publication that supports the feature, like The Washington Post; then try an article from one that doesn't, like Reuters. I promise you'll notice a major difference.) That reduced load time ensures a better experience for users, increasing the odds that they'll stay engaged with Facebook for longer periods of time. They may also read more articles if the experience as a whole is less cumbersome, and by extension, like, share, and comment on them more often. At the same time, if a publisher allows Facebook to sell ads on its behalf, the social network takes a 30% cut of the revenue.
In November, during Facebook's most recent conference call with analysts, CEO Mark Zuckerberg commented on the potential of Instant Articles, saying that he was "really excited" about them.
Instant Articles benefit both Facebook and individual users, but for publishers, the spoils are less certain. Some commentators condemned the feature shortly after Facebook announced it. Michael Wolff, writing for MIT Technology Review, described it as an existential threat, one that posed a great risk to existing media incumbents.
Facebook took quite a while to roll Instant Articles out to its users. It finally reached the majority of iPhone owners in late October, while those using Android didn't get them until December. Facebook has managed to attract a number of well-known outlets, including The New York Times and The Guardian, but the total number remains relatively small. There are only about 100 publishers using Instant Articles on a daily basis.
In November, The Wall Street Journal reported that the initiative was stumbling. The publishers that had agreed to use it were reportedly having difficulty generating sufficient advertising revenue, as limitations imposed by Facebook curtailed their ability to sell ads. In December, Facebook relented somewhat, easing many of the restrictions it had placed on its content partners. For its part, Facebook's management has consistently described its Instant Article push as being in the "early days," and that, over time, it would add more content partners and host many more articles.
To be clear, Facebook's Instant Articles may hold significant potential, but for now, unless your reading is restricted to a select group of publishers, most of the articles you encounter on Facebook are still likely to be of the mobile web variety. That's disappointing for Facebook and for its users, and that makes Instant Articles the most overhyped and worst new feature Facebook introduced this year.