Paper by Facebook
Paper, Facebook’s new iPhone is a confident product from a company that’s been slow to master the nuances of creating a fine mobile app. Out today, it’s probably the best Facebook has ever looked. But behind those looks lies a smart strategy to turn Facebook into a publisher of original content. Maybe, like Facebook Home, it will crash. But it’s still a fascinating window into how the company might eventually face-off against media brands and content publishers.
Created by a small group of star designers and engineers operating as a sort of start-up within the company itself, Paper isn’t a replacement for the official Facebook app so much as an alternative to it. Nevertheless, it’s fare more polished and satisfying than Facebook’s other offerings, letting status updates and pictures luxuriate in a full-screen layout instead of relegating them to a cramped vertical feed.
The most radical aspect of Paper, though, is that it isn’t predicated entirely on your friends. In addition to giving you a new way to leaf through their updates, the app also comes with a handful of sections for topics like tech, sports, and cooking. Here, algorithms and human editors will pull together a variety of content, collating stories from big name publications and choice offerings from lesser-known blogs—and one other, very important source. Mixed in with all that will be the best publicly-posted content from Facebook users, as handpicked by the curatorial team.
Paper is thus something of a Trojan horse, meant to transform the idea of what it means to use Facebook in the first place. By expanding the scope and quality of content you can expect to find there, Paper is trying to position itself as a place you’ll go for news and inspiration–and, just as importantly, as the kind of place you’ll want to contribute to yourself. Viewed from that lens, Facebook becomes a publishing platform, somewhere in between Tumblr and Flipboard.
A Beautiful Way to Read
Facebook has been toying around with the idea of building a reader for years. Mark Zuckerberg has said that he wanted to make Facebook “the best personalized newspaper in the world.” As the designers of Paper explain it, though, what they had in mind was something closer to a glossy monthly periodical. “Picking up a feed on your phone is nowhere near the experience of picking up your favorite magazine and flipping through it,” says Mike Matas, the lead designer on the new app. The plan for Paper was to change that.
Matas is a UI wunderkind who was hired by Apple at age 19. There he was responsible for shaping the look of a staggering number of applications, from the first Photo Booth app for OS X to the camera, photos, maps, and settings interfaces for the original iPhone. After that he helped create the UI for the Nest thermostat. With his start-up Push Pop Press, Matas tried to solve the vexing problem of incorporating multimedia and interactivity into digital books without losing the essential simplicity of the real thing. Facebook acquired it in 2011.
The central question with Paper, says Matas, was a similar balancing act. “How do we design something on a screen the size of a credit card that will bring in some of the influence of older print design? That led all of our decisions.” Their first step was to strip away the visual junk that usually accompanies smartphone apps. You’ll find no navigation bars and on-screen buttons. The app is built around a few simple gestures.
The design focuses you attention on just one thing at a time: You flip through updates one at a time. Each photo album, web link, or single sentence status update gets a chance to fill the whole screen. There isn’t a trace of the dense vertical stream of content popularized by Facebook’s NewsFeed. “We’ve talked about it almost as going through a museum,” says Matas, “Where you tilt your head and try to understand what the person was trying to say.” One of Paper’s most impressive design accomplishments is a grid-based UI that can accommodate so many different types of content. “One of the interesting things with Paper is the texture you get,” says Matas. “It’s the texture you get when you’re looking at a magazine.”
Reeling in the Content
Paper will live or die by the quality of its content. In Facebook’s promo video, we’re whisked into a world where everyone posts well-composed photos of the California sunset and dashes off thoughtful status updates several times a day. One woman publishes a sonogram of her unborn child while taking a bath. It think it’s safe to say that’s not a common use case. A quick look at my own feed reveals what I imagine is a more realistic cross-section of content: Beyonce lyrics and links to BuzzFeed. How can any perfect pocket magazine improve the Facebook experience if the pages are filled with crud?
Matas sees it as a chicken-and-egg type problem. Today, he argues, people are well aware that their status updates get piped directly into the firehose, and there’s not much incentive to contribute good stuff. Build a better container, and the content quality will rise as well. Paper looks to solve that problem in two ways. One, it beautifies the way the content is displayed, bringing the final product to the level of Tumblr or Medium. Further, Paper comes with publishing tools to match. Like Medium, the app shows a preview of how your post will look. Thus, posting stuff to Paper will cease to feel like anything resembling “updating Facebook” at all, and more like putting out a news article.
Paper also aims to solve the quality problem with one very big carrot: The chance for contributors to reach a massive audience, on any on of a number of specialized sections. And unlike Twitter, each of those sections is staffed by editors charged with elevating those people making good stuff. Out of the dozen-plus sections that will be found in Paper at launch, only a couple will focus on news. The rest will put an emphasis on creative content. “With these different sections, if you’re an artist, you can share it on your Facebook,” he says. “We’ll feature these people.”
Cool by Dissociation
Mark Zuckerberg has argued that Facebook doesn’t need to be cool to win. “Maybe electricity was cool when it first came out, but pretty quickly people stopped talking about it,” he said last fall. “Are fewer people turning on their lights because it’s less cool?”
The trouble with that analogy is that our relationship with Facebook today isn’t one of dependence so much as habit. At this point, we have all sorts of avenues for sharing, promoting, and consuming. Every time someone posts something to a competitor, that’s one page that doesn’t end up in Facebook’s lovely magazine.
But by launching a product that celebrates content, Paper could win back some of that valuable engagement. That’s a war Facebook plans to fight on several fronts, with a portfolio of focused apps, such as Messenger and Instagram, instead of a single do-all mobile tool. Not that Matas and his close-knit team of fellow designers were necessarily thinking about all that when they were making the app. The coolest part about it, of course, is that it didn’t end up looking anything like Facebook at all.