Somewhere deep in the bowels of Googleplex, someone is wondering, Why the hell did we shut down Google Reader? Because it seems these days everyone wants to build one of those “readers,” though they come up with fancy names for them. Flipboard, obviously, is the granddaddy of them all. Beautiful and elegant, it is, as someone quipped to me recently, one of the best apps that nobody uses. Then there is Twitter with its Moments. Apple has Apple News. And Facebook has joined the party with its latest app, Notify.
There have been some fancy descriptions of it, but to me it looks like an app that is a single place to get the information you like from sources you like and has a smart way of notifying you. There isn’t any data science or any magic, though I bet Facebook is tracking everything everyone is reading to make its system smarter and more intelligent. Remember, all of this data will allow the company to surface the right content in the so-called News Feed, which in all honesty is getting more cluttered with ads and commercial content than Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. And all of those Instant Articles need to be surfaced smartly. For example, by subscribing to Quartz Business Alerts, I gave Facebook a reason to surface Instant Articles from that publication in my Facebook feed. Or maybe it’s the other way around, that Facebook convinces customers like Quartz Business Alerts to publish more posts by showing it that more people are following it on Notify. In other words, we don’t know the corporate reasons for Notify. But since Facebook historically has been an untrustworthy corporate overlord, don’t be surprised if I see nefarious intentions everywhere.
Paint me skeptical, but I don’t use Facebook Mobile apps on my regular device. Instead I leave it to a test device. Time and again Facebook has proved too interested in snagging data for me to feel comfortable with it on my phone. Sorry, I digress. Back to the Notify app!
I downloaded the app and signed in with my Facebook credentials. The next screen showed me “stations” to follow, from breaking news to local weather to local news to food information. You can switch the view to see “sources” instead of stations, but I like the stations analogy, as that is what people are used to on television.
Notify’s media selections are bland, boring and, well, the kind of stuff I don’t much care for. There are choices for following business, culture and other topics. You have classic brands (and not the best) to follow. They are big brands, all familiar and all corporate pastiche. Sure, there are some good long-read options, but it is like going to the old newsstand at the train stations, where only big and rich publications could find space.
I was automatically assigned weather channels for my zip code, a smart feature and a good use of our data that Facebook has already hoarded. The whole process was dead simple, and it took less than 5 minutes for me to create my own “reader.” You click on a headline and a browser opens for you to read the story. Remember, Facebook doesn’t care if you don’t come to its site, as long as it can track your behavior via data it is collecting.
Notify gets a solid A on ease of use and for setting up the app. The design is very Facebook, bland by intention. It is not up to my aesthetic standards, but I am not the one it wants to snag as a customer and reader. The pre-populated content sources are made for generic mass consumption. Facebook has built in smarter notifications (or so they seem at this moment), and it wouldn’t surprise me if that leads to more constant engagement. In other words, Notify checks all the boxes and is ready for the majority of Facebook’s customer base.