NEW YORK — From the time that Google killed off Google Reader (R.I.P.), there has been speculation that Facebook was working on a sort of news reader of its own. In a way this seemed odd, because Facebook already is a sort of news reader of its own, albeit one in which much of the “news” is about your friends’ cats, babies and vacations. And it’s getting newsier all the time. Why, then, would Facebook want or need another product that does the same thing?
Well, this week Facebook launched that new app, called Paper, and it looks gorgeous. The company’s best designers have clearly been hard at work designing a mobile app that makes the best possible use of a small screen. Photos and videos appear at full-screen size. You navigate by swiping, a natural motion that mobile news-reading apps like Flipboard have employed to great success. Stories and updates from your friends appear in the form of cards that can be readily scrolled, shuffled, maximized and minimized.
Here’s the thing: It’s still not clear what’s so different about this app from the wildly successful mobile app that Facebook already has. Is Paper essentially just a simplified, prettified version of Facebook with a different name?
In short, yes — but that might be a good thing. First of all, as big a hit as Facebook’s mobile app is (and as the company’s latest quarterly earnings demonstrate, it is a huge hit), it’s far from the most aesthetically pleasing thing in the app store. Nor is it optimized to offer a pleasurable reading or viewing experience. And finally, as much as people check Facebook on their phones, they tend to sort of hate themselves for doing it.
The Facebook app works best as a simple tool for checking in on what friends are up to, or to quickly share your own photos or status updates and see what your friends are saying about them. It’s great for pulling out of your pocket and glancing at the little “notifications” icon to make sure you haven’t missed anything important. Paper, meanwhile, may be better for the occasions when you actually have a little time to read some articles, watch videos, and so forth. It represents a way for Facebook to go after the Flipboard audience without detracting from the utilitarian functionality of its main app.
Paper, in this view, is essentially just a second version of the Facebook app that’s tailored to a different use case. If that sounds odd, consider that Google has a whole bevy of apps for different use cases. My iPhone alone has Gmail, Chrome, Google Maps, Google, Google Plus (don’t judge), YouTube and Chromecast apps. Paper would be only my third Facebook app, after Facebook and Instagram. (Facebook Messenger also has proven popular as a standalone offering.)
But there’s a second thing that’s different about Paper: It’s manually customizable, giving users the ability to swipe between content sections like “Tech,” “Planet,” “Headlines” and “LOL.” That positions it as a possible answer to one of the loudest user criticisms of Facebook over the years — that, for all its advanced algorithms, the News Feed never seems to show you exactly the kind of things you want it to show you.
People have long complained that their News Feed is cluttered with junk and social detritus, despite the best efforts of Facebook’s engagement-maximization machines. At the same time, the bizarre complaint that Facebook is “hiding” worthwhile stories and updates (Out of sheer spite? As a way to blackmail people into paying to promote their posts?) refuses to go away. Paper gives the company a way to hand some of the keys back to the individual user: “Here, you tell us what kind of stuff you really want to see.”
It’s too early to tell whether Paper will really catch on. It’s possible a lot of users want less Facebook in their lives, not more. And it may be that when people want to read the news, they’d prefer to read just the news, not the news combined with their friends’ Facebook posts.
That said, the basic idea of launching standalone apps — of which Mark Zuckerberg has promised more in the years to come — is a smart one for a company whose biggest problem may be the public’s fatigue with its primary brand. Note that Instagram has not seemed to suffer from the same complaints about coolness as Facebook, even though it’s part of Facebook. Paper doesn’t look “cool,” per se, but it does look different from Facebook. For some people, that may be reason enough to give it a shot.