Facebook's continued experimentation with a read-it-later tool might finally bring some real news to Zuck's metaphorical newspaper
Facebook is once again testing a feature that would allow its users to save links for later viewing, much like popular read-it-later services Pocket and Instapaper. The feature is unsurprising given the company's previous news-reading efforts, past acquisitions, and the rate at which its users are already discovering real news in their so-called News Feeds.
As I wrote in July 2012, when the company acquired a read-it-later service and news-focused development company in rapid succession:
One need look no further than Facebook’s social reading apps to see why the company would want to hire outside talent to fix information sharing. Let’s be honest: Facebook’s social readers suck. Every time I click a link that appears in my News Feed I’m prompted to sign up for a social reader application that will feed everything I read into Facebook’s servers. Facebook has nailed the concept and is right to think that people want to share what they’re reading, but the execution is less than stellar.The inadequacy of these news-readers hasn't stopped Facebook's users from finding news on the service. A recent poll by the Pew Research Journalism Project showed that roughly 30 percent of American adults find news via Facebook, which is much more than Twitter (8 percent) or LinkedIn (3 percent) or other social networks. That lead disappeared when Pew studied consumers' mobile news habits, where 54 percent of Twitter users and 51 percent of LinkedIn users, but only 38 percent of Facebook users, get news.
Introducing a read-it-later service like the one it's currently testing might help Facebook convince its users that their mobile devices can be good tools for finding and reading the latest news. Making it easy to discover an article on the Web and then sync it to the Facebook mobile apps, which are the most popular apps on both Android and iOS, will likely be far easier than convincing the average person that they need to create an account with Pocket or Instapaper, add an extension to their Web browser, download those company's mobile apps, and remember to check them.
The metaphorical newspaper Mark Zuckerberg described in March might finally pay the same attention to news as it does to the photos, videos, and status updates users' friends are sharing every day. In conjunction with the changes Facebook is making to its News Feed by improving its algorithms and allowing users to find information they might actually care about, the tool seems like a fine alternative to drowning in baby photos and selfies.
Of course, the feature could end up going nowhere, much like it did when it was first tested last July. But given the rate at which Facebook's users are discovering news on the service, the company's previous attempts to create noteworthy news-reading tools, and its acquisition of two companies devoted almost entirely to discovering or saving news for later, it seems like Facebook will continue to experiment with this offering until it gets it right.
Zuckerberg is trying to create the next-generation newspaper, and despite the value in gleaning relevant information from the photos and status updates around which the service has been built, building a decent news-reading experience is equally important.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]