The Quiet Upheaval of Facebook's New iPhone App

By Robinson Meyer
Facebook

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.

“If Facebook's predominant motto is ‘move fast break things,’” he writes, “Apple’s is the complete opposite.”

Facebook

In all these elements, Paper seems like a prototypical attempt at self-disruption, where an upstart internal team within a larger company develops a product that could, eventually, supplant the company’s main offering. The company knows that no one can seriously challenge it at its own game right now, so, if it wants to stay relevant, it must challenge itself—even if its own attempts don’t produce any revenue.

(“Stories appear fullscreen and distraction free,” reads copy on the Paper website, which is code for “We’re not serving ads to you yet.”)

Paper also represents a different kind of strategy for the social giant. Paper connects to Facebook but isn’t Facebook—it’s a derivative app. Isaac reports that we should expect more of this “multiple-app” strategy, in which Facebook’s data sprouts a variety of interfaces.

If Facebook is a “walled garden,” the company is getting away from mono-cropping. It’s now treating its trove of data and connections more like a plot from which many different kinds of apps can spring.

But why this new strategy? When Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a new News Feed last March, he said Facebook wanted to be “the best personalized newspaper in the world”? Facebook’s continued to push that effort, increasing the number of news articles that users encounter on the site, even though users themselves haven’t adored the change. Why do that? Why get in the news game? 

The Most Perfect Newspaper in All the World

If Facebook has a major competitor, it’s Twitter—IPO-sated, media darling Twitter. Journalists love Twitter and know to post their stories there; big television companies like it because it’s a good “second-screen,” and it supposedly gets more people to watch TV. And it’s to defend against Twitter, it seems, that Facebook now displays trending topics, that it sent an October traffic deluge publishers’s way. Last year, Facebook referred 120 million more visits to the Buzzfeed network than Google did.

Facebook’s new trending topics 

It’s worked. Facebook Twitterified, it out-referred Google, and publishers noticed. Many now tailor their content to Facebook accordingly.

But if Facebook has defended against Twitter by zagging to their zag, it’s now zigging. Where Facebook has gotten faster, newsier, trendier, Paper takes it slower. It presents, in other words, a different, profoundly un-Twitter interface. If over the past half-year, social network design has trended toward an image-heavy, advertising-rich stream, Paper ditches the stream and hugs the images.

We don’t know yet—because it hasn’t been released—but Paper seems to share the logic of the newspaper front page—where topmost placement signifies importance—over the reverse-chronological feel of the blog.

Is Paper, then, solving a problem? Not particularly. It is, however, anticipating a change in how people will want to read and browse and watch things on the web.  It’s anticipating that people will want some stability in their news routine, that they’ll want to sit apart from a crested Stream

For a while, when talking about social networks, it felt like there was an assumption, smuggled in, that posited that we’d be progressing toward some higher, more profound social web. Facebook even calls its developer conference F8fate. With every interface change, it seemed, we were twirling, twirling, twirling upward to connection.

But now we’re connected, and the most-discussed startups of the past few months have been more concerned with messaging and ephemerality than the massive, purportedly permanent profiles that Facebook put together. I’m not sure if Paper fits into the plan, that path, or if it’s just something new and interesting and perhaps useful. Personally, I’m hoping it’s more useful than ideological—because, from Facebook, a company that seemed out of ideas and doomed to chase innovators, Paper seems like something new.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/02/the-quiet-upheaval-of-facebooks-new-iphone-app/283477/