[Update June 24th: Facebook is in fact working on a fresh news reading experience, but we were mistaken about the launch date. It revealed Instagram For Video on June 20th. However, a source tells TechCrunch that Facebook is working on a reading product, but its not based on RSS or a Google Reader wannabe. We've updated this article several times since it was published, but beyond the headline and this note it now appears in its the same way it did on June 14 when it was first run.]
The upcoming death of Google Reader and the addition of hashtags signal Facebook will likely launch a new way to discover and read news at the June 20th press event it’s just sent out mysterious invites to. It could be a sort of “trending articles on Facebook” feature, or a more full-blown RSS reader-style product.
Either could take advantage of Facebook’s massive treasure trove of aggregate data on what people share to surface popular and personally recommended news articles.
The event invite, first spotted by Joanna Stern of ABC News, says “A small team has been working on a big idea. Join us for coffee and learn about a new product.” The conspicuously analog invite was sent out via paper snail mail instead of by email like Facebook usually does. There’s also a coffee stain on the invite. You know where else you find coffee stains? On the newspaper, while you’re reading it, over coffee.
Nobody knows what Facebook knows. Since most users share semi-privately, it can’t be scraped for trending topics. But Facebook’s algorithms see all. Similar to how it offers ad targeting data in anonymous aggregate, Facebook could surface what articles are being shared most frequently across its user base without violating privacy.
The product could potentially ket people follow outside sources of news through a format like RSS, but we can’t confirm that. The product is likely to take advantage of hashtags that Facebook users can now add to posts to help its algorithms understand what topics different news articles are about.
When I asked Facebook about what more it could do with its data on what people share, it initially offered to put me on the phone with someone, but ended up just referring me to the hashtag announcement from earlier this week. That blog post notes “Hashtags are just the first step to help people more easily discover what others are saying about a specific topic and participate in public conversations. We’ll continue to roll out more features in the coming weeks and months.”
A better way to surface news could be that next step. In fact, I’m pretty much positive it is, though I couldn’t get anyone at Facebook to confirm on the record.
Whether the new product includes formal RSS reading capabilities that take advantage of the long-running content syndication standard remains to be seen. Asking users to choose different sources and subscribe to feeds of them could be a lot of work and seem somewhat redundant for the average Facebook user. Still, that kind of functionality could find an audience amongst hardcore Internet users.
As our Ingrid Lunden wrote yesterday, “Lines of code referring to “rssfeeds” have recently started to appear in Facebook’s Graph API code (as spotted by developer and Facebook sleuth Tom Waddington). Linking the RSS feed to a user’s Facebook ID, the code schema also covers such aspects as title, URL and update time. Each RSS feed subsequently has entries and subscribers.” This code could be part of the new product, but it also may be unrelated, having to do with a user’s own posts being an RSS feed, rather than a user reading feeds produced by others.
A Facebook news reader with RSS would come at a perfect time, just two weeks before Google shuts down Google Reader for good. The June 20th launch date might give Facebook just enough time to help people migrate onto its version.
Alternatively, Facebook’s new product could more resemble Reddit or a list trending articles based on what’s being shared the most on the social network. That would make it instantly and easily valuable to people.
Whatever it’s exact design, I hope it won’t just be a clone, but something that combines the unique social signals Facebook has access to with tried-and-true news consumption mediums.
A reader of any form would certainly qualify as a “big idea”, as Facebook is all about connecting you to people, things, and information you care about, and news is by definition what people care about. A successful launch could drastically increase time spent on Facebook, fill it with useful data about what topics people are interested in, offer new advertising opportunities around current events, and most importantly, make us all better informed citizens of Earth.