The Quiet Upheaval of Facebook's New iPhone App

For its 10th birthday, Facebook is giving itself Paper.
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This week, Facebook will have two big causes for celebration. On Monday, the company will release a new iPhone app. On Tuesday, the website will turn 10.

A new iPhone app? New software would seem to pale against a decade of existence—ten years in which the company has gone from a dorm room conception to a $150 billion capitalization, in which a website that once required harvard.edu email addresses became the world’s second most-visited.

But the new app, named Paper, is more important than it may first appear. It signals a change, long-time coming, for how the company interacts with consumers, and marks a new sort of competition among social networks. It’s a change that could affect far more than the iPhone users who will download the app on Monday.

But to understand why, you have to understand the app.

(UPDATE, 12:30 p.m.: Facebook has now released Paper—you can download it here.) 

Designy, and Millennial-Attuned

Will Oremus at Slate put it best: Paper is Facebook by another name. It’s extra-special Facebook, though: Facebook in a different shell, and Facebook with some super powers.

Paper (the app, not the material) seems to have two major feature sets. First, it reformats Facebook’s News Feed to be more graphic, with full-screen photos, videos, and prettified status updates and links. News Feed is what you see when you open Facebook.com—it’s been the company’s principal way of showing new Facebook content since 2006.

Facebook

Paper supplants it. It lumps “stories”—it refers constantly to stories and they seem like its base-unit of content—from far-flung friends, newspaper front pages, and cat-centric video accounts together, while sorting content into Millennial-attuned topics like “Headlines,” “Creators,” and “Planet.”

This feature set of Paper seems to resemble the digital magazine app, Flipboard—except that it can designify all of your Facebook friends’s content, too. Paper is like a designy Facebook.

Paper has a second set of capabilities, though, and they may prove more important. The app lets you post statuses, photos, and “stories” to Facebook. Your Facebook friends can, in turn, see them. It’s a different, more presentation-focused way to post to the network.

It is doing this, obviously, so that you may post on Facebook more.

Mike Matas, lead designer for the project, said as much to Recode’s Mike Isaac: “As you start changing the way you’re displaying this content, we hope that it will change the way people think about posting content.”

Paper transforms and augments Facebook so that it become a nicer, shinier social network—a place you’d like to spend time. Last week, the blogger and entrepreneur Anil Dash illustrated the problem that Paper’s trying to tackle:

The A-Team

Before he led the Paper team, designer Mike Matas founded Push Pop Press. Their best-known release was Al Gore's Our Choice, pictured above. (Push Pop Press)

The core Facebook engineering team didn’t create Paper. A separate team within the company developed the app, a team composed of developers and designers known best for their work at another giant Silicon Valley firm: Apple.

An app like Paper has been a long-time coming. Matas, Paper’s lead designer, worked at Apple, then founded Push Pop Press, a briefly lived company that produced incredible ebooks for iOS devices. Push Pop Press was acquired by Facebook almost three years ago, in August 2011. At the time, commentators mourned the disappearance of Push Pop—crack Apple blogger John Gruber wrote

Mike Matas is responsible for and/or had a major hand in much of Apple’s best and most exuberant design work in recent memory. This is big. Shows that Facebook — and Mark Zuckerberg in particular — is committing to design as a top priority.

Paper is one of the longest-running products at Facebook,” said Jason Barrett Prado in a Quora post on what it was like to develop Paper. The team, he said, was composed of many Apple alums, and as such had an atmosphere strung between Apple and Facebook’s.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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