News Sites Consider Moving Their Content Inside Facebook (Because That Worked So Well In The AOL Era)

There’s news in the world of news today, as some major sites are on the cusp of a new publishing deal with Facebook. The deal would actively keep their content inside of Facebook, rather than having links on everyone’s love-to-hate-it social network lead back out to other companies’ respective websites. But there is one specific lesson this deal highlights: even on the internet, you can’t escape the cycles of history. Somehow, everything old will be new again.

The New York Times reports that BuzzFeed, National Geographic, and the New York Times are likely to be the launch partners for Facebook’s new program. (The NYT report about the NYT spoke to “people with knowledge of the discussions” and does not consider the deal officially confirmed. A representative for the NYT declined to speak to the NYT.)

The New York Times launched its website just under twenty years ago, on January 22, 1996. And now, 19 years after the NYT took its first steps onto the web, it may be starting to retreat back off.

At the time, the NYT wrote that the “electronic newspaper” being put onto the web was, “part of a strategy to extend the readership of The Times and to create opportunities for the company in the electronic media industry.”

Before launching their website, the NYT had maintained a digital presence on AOL, the dominant ISP of the 1990s. That space, called @times decades before Twitter sprinted away with that format, began operating in 1994.

But to the paper of record, breaking out of AOL’s platform and onto the world wide web meant finally being able to go worldly and wide in every sense. It was a prime opportunity to go global and reach (i.e., sell advertising to) everyone: “The Web site’s global audience means a larger potential readership than that of @times, which is limited to America Online’s subscribers, currently more than four million.”

The Times’ trajectory through the era is a familiar one; many companies took a similar path into, and then out of, the early, locked ISPs.

Digital space evolved before the thing we now think of as the public internet did. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, from the modern point of view, there basically was no internet. Connections were direct: you dialed into a specific message board, server, or service.

Services like CompuServe, Prodigy, and AOL were walled gardens. Expansive ones, but isolated just the same. You dialed in specifically to AOL to access their material. Saying you could find NBC News online on AOL at keyword: NBC wasn’t just a marketing partnership, at the time; it was literally the place to find NBC News online.

And then, in 1994-1995, we got the World Wide Web and a remarkable piece of general-purpose software with which to access it: the browser.

Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer kicked off at the end of 1994 and the middle of 1995, respectively, and everyone ran out and staked a claim on some small slice of internet territory. It was a land rush in the western frontier, writ global. Individuals and businesses alike bought up domains, set up shop, and tried to figure out just what the heck a website was really for.

A few years after that, two doctoral students at Stanford launched a research project that would become Google. A couple years farther along, on the opposite coast, a Harvard undergrad thought fellow students would like his site The Facebook. Another year or two down the line, and engineers at Apple thought: what if we put the iPod and a cell phone into the same device? And so the entire online environment, and all the players in it, have changed.

We now face a digital landscape more like 1995 than like 2005, in many ways. Consumers are increasingly using mobile devices for their access, and that means coming to sites and services through a variety of limited-use, narrow-scope apps. One app for your local news channel. Another for the NYT. A third for Facebook. A fourth for sports information. And so on, to infinity. The appification of the internet has taken users — and content companies — back away from the browser and into a series of controlled and curated environments.

The digital strategies change, but the net effects and concerns for consumers are remarkably familiar. What happens if one company — in this instance, Facebook — becomes not just the de facto gatekeeper to the world’s news, but the literal one?

Facebook, of course, gets to benefit. But it might be rocky going for everyone else:

The new proposal by Facebook carries another risk for publishers: the loss of valuable consumer data. When readers click on an article, an array of tracking tools allow the host site to collect valuable information on who they are, how often they visit and what else they have done on the web.

That data might instead go to Facebook, which like many companies uses that information itself to target and track consumers more effectively for advertisers (and which has been subject to criticisms over its privacy policies). It has not been disclosed how much of that data Facebook would be willing to share.

And if Facebook pushes beyond the experimental stage and makes content hosted on the site commonplace, those who do not participate in the program could lose substantial traffic — a factor that has played into the thinking of some publishers. Their articles might load more slowly than their competitors’, and over time readers might avoid those sites.

Net neutrality means that the owner of your internet wires can’t mess with the traffic you request through them, but neither it nor any other rule says anything about internet publishers who manage content. If the number one way consumers access news links is through Facebook — and it more or less is — then keeping those consumers inside Facebook and speeding up the news delivered inside Facebook is a way for Facebook to make Facebook not only more attractive, but more necessary, for internet content companies.

And the more companies are publishing inside Facebook, the harder it gets for anyone, anywhere, to stay away.

Facebook May Host News Sites’ Content [New York Times]