A requiem for Facebook Paper

Facebook Paper—the best-designed app you never used is going away. Here’s what we should learn from it.

A requiem for Facebook Paper

You’ve probably never used Facebook Paper, the social networking giant’s beautiful and innovative newsreader for iOS. And now you’ll never get the chance because Facebook has removed Paper from the App Store and will shutter it completely on July 29.

That’s not surprising because even after debuting to well-deserved critical acclaim in 2014, Paper never got a big promotional push and never achieved widespread popularity. It didn’t help that Facebook’s Creative Labs, the team behind Paper, was shut down late last year. 

Not a good newsreader

The biggest problem, though, was that Paper wasn’t actually very good at its stated purpose, offering access to curated feeds of not just your own Facebook newsfeed, but curated newsfeeds on broad topics like Headlines, Tech, Score, LOL and Pop Life. It turns out that the editing and story selection was slow and uninspired, too often presenting the same tired stories you could see everywhere else. Think of a not-quite-fully-realized competitor to Flipboard.

Brilliant design and user experience

But the end of Paper is a shame because while the newsfeeds were far from special, the app’s gesture-based UX and super-clean design were exceptional and innovative. Instead of a single vertical stream, Paper presented an immersive, horizontally scrolling set of screens that—with a mere flick—could be instantly enlarged to fill the whole screen with images and text.

“Many of the same tools, design elements, and fundamental ideas” are now visible in Facebook’s Instant Articles,” the company said in a message to Paper users. But not all of them. And not the best of them.

These are the things Paper was good at

What made Paper so cool wasn’t the articles themselves. It was the way users could swiftly and intuitively navigate though the app, making things bigger or smaller and swiping side to side.

It was the novel yet satisfying way items folded and unfolded as you selected them.

It was the smooth responsiveness of the movement of text and images.

It was the way you could segment your news feed by topic rather than have it all mushed together in one giant stream.

It was the way it elegantly superimposed text over images for a cleaner look and better use of scarce smartphone real estate.

It was the way when you tapped on a picture to enlarge it, the image filled the entire iPhone screen. And if some of the image didn’t fit, you could tilt your phone to pan across the entire image. (Showing that one to people always elicited a “wow!” in response.)

It was the way it didn’t force users to go to a separate Facebook Messenger app to communicate directly with other users.

It was the way it showed you exactly how your post would look before you posted it.

It was the way you reached the settings menu with a simple swipe from the top instead of the now-increasingly-stale “hamburger” menu style.

It was the way it didn’t muck up the feed with ads.

When Paper came on the scene in 2014, many observers said it was much, much better than the Facebook’s main iOS app. Today, in 2016, even though Paper was barely updated since its launch and the main Facebook gets constant “improvements,” it's still better than the main Facebook app. 

Parts of Paper will enhance Facebook—we hope

As the team wrote in its good-bye message, “Our goal with Paper was to explore new immersive, interactive design elements for reading and interacting with content on Facebook, and we learned how important these elements are in giving people an engaging experience. We know not all the features you love will move over to Facebook, but we hope you'll continue to notice elements from Paper improving the Facebook experience for everyone.”

For that to happen, Facebook must first realize that Paper failed to catch on not because it wasn’t a better way to experience Facebook, but because it was promoted—when it was promoted at all—as a news-reading service, and it wasn’t very good at that. But it was the best way ever to work with Facebook on an iPhone.

My hope is that the main Facebook app someday becomes as elegant, fast and fun as Facebook Paper. Who knows—it could happen.

Proud disclosure: My son worked on the original team that developed Facebook Paper.

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