What exactly is Facebook's Paper app?

Trying to figure out what Facebook is trying to accomplish with its new app, Paper.

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Credit: Facebook

Facebook today officially announced its Paper app, which will be available for download on February 3rd. Although this was the app’s official introduction, it’s still unclear exactly what the app intends to accomplish.

Rumors and speculation ahead of the release suggested Facebook was developing a mobile news app that provided users with the most recent, popular, and relevant content being shared on the web. Earlier this week, news broke that Facebook was seeking editors for the project, which added an interesting layer – a site whose algorithms are designed to identify what’s relevant for people was admitting the importance of people to decide what’s relevant. This sparked some excitement over an innovative news app that went more in-depth than Twitter and promoted more reliable and interesting content than Google News.

The official introduction, however, is unclear on whether Paper is actually a news app or if it’s simply a re-designed Facebook app that puts more emphasis on shared links than uploaded images. Let’s examine Facebook’s description:

"Paper makes storytelling more beautiful with an immersive design and fullscreen, distraction-free layouts. We’ve also made it easier to craft and share beautiful stories of your own.”"

Perhaps what’s most interesting about Paper is that it seems like a subtle admission of what Facebook users who are interested in following trustworthy sources and content have alleged in recent years – Facebook has basically become a watered-down version of Instagram. Images have taken over the Facebook newsfeed. Even the bulk of the links shared to Facebook are just collections of images and gifs embedded in Buzzfeed articles. Those hoping to find interesting news or in-depth content are likely to get distracted and turned away by memes and gif lists.

Oh, and users will be able to share their own content, as they’ve been able to since the newsfeed was incorporated.

"Your Paper is made of stories and themed sections, so you can follow your favorite interests. The first section in Paper is your Facebook News Feed, where you’ll enjoy inspiring new designs for photos, videos, and longer written posts. You can customize Paper with a choice of more than a dozen other sections about various themes and topics—from photography and sports to food, science and design. Each section includes a rich mix of content from emerging voices and well-known publications."

Here is where Facebook starts to introduce the exciting stuff. The idea of “sections” likely sounds familiar to anyone with a Reddit account. It’s essentially subreddits for the Facebook crowd, which was a smart move for Facebook. There are still a lot of people on Facebook who haven’t been introduced to Reddit yet, particularly in the higher age groups that have driven Facebook’s growth in the past few years. If Facebook does Paper right, they won’t have to risk losing these users to Reddit.

Storytelling and sharing have been reimagined in Paper to show stories at their best.

  • Everything responds to your touch so you can pick up or thumb through stories with simple, natural movements
  • You can tilt your phone to explore high-resolution panoramic photos from corner to corner, and see faces and other important details up close
  • Fullscreen autoplay videos come to life and bring you deep into the action 
  • Beautifully detailed covers make it easy to spot articles from trusted publishers and decide what to read or watch
  • Articles unfold in the app and appear fullscreen for a focused reading experience
  • When you're ready to tell your own story, you know exactly what your post or photo will look like because you see a live preview before you share it

Only two of these "new" features are new – "detailed covers" that promote "trusted publishers" is a very interesting prospect. The average Facebook user may have trouble differentiating between biased or factually incorrect blog posts and news articles from the AP or Reuters. Seeing that kind of content promoted in the newsfeed can get frustrating for the rest of us. The pre-post preview is a nice touch, but as anyone who’s posted to a corporate Facebook page knows, it’s something that should have come out a long time ago.

Facebook Paper incorporates enough new features for Facebook to call it a unique app, but it’s still pretty close to a straight-up re-design. The strange thing about Facebook is that the stigmas that surround the user experience, in terms of content at least, aren’t necessarily legitimate. Users build their own social networks, and thereby control who to follow and who not to follow. Theoretically, Facebook users who aren’t happy with their Facebook experience have no one to blame but themselves. You don’t like memes? Then unfollow the people who post them. Would you rather see more news articles? Then click Like more on more news outlets’ Facebook pages.

But Facebook knows that ideal is nowhere near the site’s reality. Everyone I know on Facebook follows at least several people they don’t want to, just out of sheer politeness. As much as the stuff they post might get annoying, we’re too afraid to remove them from our networks because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. When our social networks become cluttered with stuff we don’t really want to see, we move onto new ones – Twitter, Instagram, Reddit – until the same thing happens there. Boredom with one environment makes a new one seem exciting by default.

Facebook Paper seems like a technological solution to that problem. It’s a new Facebook newsfeed without the stigmas and relationships of the old one. It puts content first and foremost, and lets users brush the messy, social aspects aside. Whether people actually treat it like that or fall back into their old ways will dictate how successful it is.

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