Facebook’s new Notify app merges RSS feeds with push notifications

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Credit: Nokia Here

Facebook has released a new application called Notify that will allow its users to receive push notifications about breaking news, new movie trailers, and more.

The move into real-time news is significant because could help Facebook achieve two goals: It could make the company more important to the media, and it could increase the traffic it sends to publishers. Now, whether the app will be successful or just something that clogs up your phone’s notifications feed is another set of questions all together.

But as for the app itself, Notify users are tasked with choosing “stations” they want to follow. These are divided into categories from sports and politics to health and entertainment. Stations are managed by sources like the New York Times or People Magazine. Every source can offer multiple stations devoted to different areas of interest.

That might sound confusing. An easier way to think about it is that Facebook has basically taken the RSS feeds publishers used to have on their websites, renamed them, and made it so they can send push notifications to their followers’ phones instead of quietly updating in the background of those followers’ RSS readers.

It’s also brought them into an application it can control, and which will receive credit if publishers get extra attention for their stories. Facebook is essentially appropriating RSS feeds — a freely available tool any publisher could use — the same way it took the Web page and sought to replace it with Instant Articles.

Facebook has been transparent about its efforts to become the only platform that matters to large publishers. Instant Articles promise many benefits, especially the speed with which they load on mobile devices, but their primary function is keeping Facebook users engaged with its platform instead of the broader web.

Many publishers have bought into this scheme. Startup companies like Vox Media quickly supported Instant Articles, and even old media publishers like the Washington Post have decided to publish all of its stories directly to Facebook. Facebook is already the most important referrer to most news sites, and it offers publishers a cut of advertising revenues — so, why not give Instant Articles a try?

Notify makes a similar value proposition. The notifications sent by the service appear on someone’s phone almost instantaneously; most RSS readers don’t offer similar mechanisms. Modern readers are all about speed, and making it so they don’t even have to load a website to read something is as fast as it gets.

Push notifications could also help Facebook bolster the traffic it sends to publishers. Digiday reported earlier this week that referral traffic to large publishers fell 32 percent between January and October. Such a large decline seriously threatens the control Facebook is able to exert over the media. But that’s only if people have stopped clicking on article links while also avoiding Instant Articles. The fall in referral traffic could well have been influenced by the rising popularity of Instant Articles, Digiday reports, because they’re specifically meant to keep users inside Facebook’s products instead of sending them away.

There’s also a bright side: Instant Articles are reportedly shared more often than links to outside websites. Facebook might have damned the media industry by making publishers rely on its service for traffic, but it might also have provided the solution by creating a content delivery mechanism its users actually prefer.

The same principle could hold true for Notify. The app will buzz people’s phones when one of their stations shares something, and those people could then share that notification to Facebook. (They don’t even have to unlock their phone to do so; a “share” option is available right next to the notification on the lock screen.)

All of which means Facebook could funnel more users into its products instead of other solutions, just like it did with Instant Articles. In the process it could benefit publishers who support it and condemn the publishers who don’t because its users would rather share things via Notify than another service.

Notify is restricted to iPhone owners in the United States at launch. It’s not clear when it might expand to other platforms or locations — Facebook only says that it’s “excited to explore this evolving medium with participating sources.” This most likely means Notify’s performance in the US will dictate any expansions.

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Jeff Ente

Good analogy with RSS feeds, but most publishers included everything they publish on their RSS feed. Hopefully they’ll practice some restraint with these push notifications that make phones beep.

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