A new mobile app from Facebook shows that the company wants to be more than a place to see content from friends. Called Paper, the app cleverly blends social networking and news reading.
Facebook’s other recent experiments with offering alternatives to its main mobile app have stumbled (see “The Strangeness of Facebook Home” and “Facebook’s Poke App Lets You Send Vanishing Messages”). But Paper is much more memorable. It’s better looking and easier to navigate than the established Facebook app, and yet still lets you see lots of information without having to poke through menus.
Reinventing how people engage with Facebook feels like a necessity for the company, which celebrates its 10th birthday on Tuesday. Since its launch in 2004, the social network has grown to attract 1.2 billion active monthly users, 945 million of them via its various mobile apps. To stay relevant as younger social apps such as SnapChat grow in popularity, Facebook needs to find new ways to keep people engaged with its products, especially on smartphones. Paper is the first app to come out of a new group created by the company to do that, called Facebook Creative Labs.
Paper’s design doesn’t hide the strategy behind it. It is plainly designed to encourage you to explore and browse the app like you would a magazine, in contrast to the News Feed-centric scrollable Facebook app that is best for checking the latest updates or responses from friends.
Like a magazine or newspaper, Paper is divided into sections to make it simple to look around. One is the News Feed of content from friends. You can choose to add up to nine other sections, all of them categories of news and content from outside Facebook. Those sections range from breaking news (“Headlines”) to sports (“Score”) to adorable animals (“Cute”). The content, which is curated both by software and humans, comes from Facebook posts made by publications, and from content partners like CNN and National Geographic.
Once you’ve picked your sections, Paper is ready to explore. One big image linking to a particular item dominates the top of each section and frequently swaps for another, quickly showing you what’s going on. For example, at any one time a story about Bill Gates might lead the “Tech” section while a photo from a friend’s wedding might appear at the top of the News Feed section. In each section, other stories sit in smaller cards in the bottom half of the screen, waiting for you to check them out. There’s no way to refresh the posts or content. Paper does it automatically, and often.
On the smartphone’s relatively small touch screen, Paper smartly favors the swipe over the tiresome tap as the main way to navigate. You swipe sideways on the top of the screen to move from section to section, or on the smaller items in the bottom half of the screen to explore within a single section. You swipe down on the top half of the app to see search, settings, and to pull up your own profile.
Tapping on a story yields a quirky origami-style animation as the page loads. Afterward, you’re essentially reading the story on the website it was published on but within the confines of the Facebook app rather than a Web browser.
Once you’re done reading a story, you can swipe to close it or tap on any links within the page to navigate elsewhere. To make it easy for people to keep poking around and reading but not get confused, little forward and back arrows appear on the page, and you can tap to open it in the Safari Web browser, if you choose.
In the News Feed section, the way the dominant status update in the top half of the display changes frequently makes it easy to quickly see what your friends are talking about while you swipe sideways through the rest of the status updates in the smaller slots underneath.
That said, Paper still has some rough edges. I couldn’t find any way to customize the content that shows up inside the different sections. If you’re really into style, for example, but not Teen Vogue, the best you can do is dismiss individual posts from that publication when you see them. I also encountered some glitches with how stories were formatted, with the text at the edge of one story cut off entirely.
Other features of Paper show good initiative but don’t deliver. You can explore very big photos by tilting your phone from side to side, but the image always seemed to shift more than I expected, making me a little seasick.
The app is currently free of ads but probably won’t be forever. Paper’s magazine-style design may open up new ad formats for the company to sell, but may also make any ads appear more noticeable to users than those in the traditional Facebook app.
Still, Paper marks a new direction for Facebook that is thoughtful, whimsical, and good looking. It’s staying on the home screen of my iPhone for now, and once the company polishes it a little more I expect it to replace my use of the main Facebook app.