Facebook Paper App: Can It Be Your Personal Newspaper?
February 6, 2014
Adam Offitzer

Ten years ago, Facebook was born. But not the Facebook we know and love (or hate) today.

Instead, the definitive features of today’s Facebook — our news feeds, cover photos, timelines and more — have been rolled out over the years (besides “the poke,” which somehow continues its improbable lifespan). And every single time the site changes, our generation has established a fairly consistent ritual. Let’s call it the three stages of Facebook grief:

  1. Confusion. We have no idea what’s going on. This change has been thrust upon us without warning – and we don’t get it.
  2. Annoyance. Not only do we not get it, we don’t like it, either. People start complaining. “[Insert new Facebook feature here] is TERRIBLE. Old Facebook was so much better.”
  3. Acceptance. People whined about cover photos, the news feed, chat and plenty more added features when they debuted. Now it’s hard to imagine Facebook without them. Unlike MySpace, which remained static for years and lost users as a result, Facebook constantly reinvented and redesigned to stay relevant.

But this week, Facebook released perhaps its most radical change in a decade of existence…and nobody complained. That’s because most people don’t have it yet — the company released it as a separate app.

That app is Paper, which re-imagines Facebook as a personal newspaper with a sleek new design and curated news sections. Tech site The Verge published one of several positive instant reviews, calling Paper “the best Facebook app ever” and praising the app for how it de-emphasizes “friend” activity and bolsters other content.

“Perhaps Facebook realized that it’s bigger than your group of friends, and that supplying valuable content and curation is another avenue that both businesses and users could love,” wrote Ellis Hamburger on The Verge.

Screenshot of the new Facebook app, Paper.

Screenshot of the new Facebook app, Paper.

Indeed, it seems like Paper marks a new focus for Facebook; a foray into the much-hyped field of news aggregation. And to some degree, it is. Along with the new layout of your traditional news feed, users can select curated topics to follow, like “Pop Life” for entertainment and “Score” for sports.

In many ways, Paper looks like a response to Flipboard, a popular magazine app that people use to view their Facebook news feeds and Twitter streams in a visually stunning format.

At Slate, Will Oremus writes that Paper “represents a way for Facebook to go after the Flipboard audience without detracting from the utilitarian functionality of its main app.”

Still, some tech critics and analysts believe that Paper doesn’t signify a major change in Facebook’s ultimate goals. Instead they say, it’s simply a repackaged, alternative version of Facebook for your phone.

Anthony De Rosa, editor in chief of a competitor mobile news app, Circa, and an adjunct journalism professor at NYU, said he doesn’t consider Paper to be primarily a news aggregation app.

Instead, he says “it falls into the Flipboard category where they’re putting some fancy wrapper on your social feed. I wouldn’t use Facebook as a news reader, I use it to keep up on friends and family. The occasional news that shows up isn’t my primary function there.”

De Rosa added that “Facebook also hasn’t shown any desire to compete with Twitter on real-time news and the way the app is presented doesn’t move them any closer in that direction.”

But De Rosa doesn’t necessarily see this as a negative thing for the company. “I don’t think they actually want to play in that space,” he said. “They’re fine with being the connection between you and the people in your life.”

Facebook representatives were not immediately available for comment this week regarding whether the Paper app was designed to offer “real-time” news to its users. 

My take? After a few hours of using Paper, it’s fair to say De Rosa has a point – as it is now, the app could never replace Twitter as a stream for breaking news. A few of the “top stories” in my “Headlines” feed were posted more than seven hours earlier. And even though the app links to stories from high-quality news outlets, there’s a noticeable lack of personalization – you get to pick from a slate of general categories, but Facebook is choosing the sources for you.

Still, the app is remarkably smooth. It’s fun to slide the title cards around and “unfold” the stories like a newspaper. So as a categorized newsreader, Paper is fine – beautiful to look at and well-organized; not exactly great for breaking news or personalized updates.

But I’ve been using Facebook since I was 15, and it’s never been for news. The site is best as a way to stay connected with friends. Sure, it’s nice to “like” and follow along with our favorite bands, sports teams and websites, but if we’re honest, we really use Facebook for stalking and sharing.

So how does Paper function as an alternate version of Facebook?  The app provides a completely fresh, free-flowing reinterpretation of your social stream. If you’re like me, and already “like” a ton of websites, those posts are mixed in with typical updates from your friends – statuses, photo uploads and timeline posts. It’s simple to “like,” share or comment on these posts within the app, and just as easy to post something new yourself, with a simple swipe down from the top of the screen. Your notifications, friend requests and messages are still present, gently popping up in the upper-right hand corner.

The problem is that your individual news feed is just one of many “sections” to scroll through, and all the others are curated general topics without any personal touch. In short, Facebook has finally created a beautiful mobile design, but it’s not personalized enough to completely replace Facebook…yet.

By releasing the app separately rather than as a massive universal update, Facebook has time to figure out exactly what Paper is, without dealing with the traditional gripes from its users. Most likely, they’ll release some variation of Paper as an update to the main Facebook app, giving us all something to complain about, then eventually accept and fall in love with — as usual.


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