Initial Thoughts On Facebook Paper

You’ve surely heard of Facebook Paper by now; it’s received plaudits across the Internet from sites like The Verge, who called it, “The Best Facebook App Ever” and Tech Crunch, who said it, “might just be the Facebook of the future.” If you haven’t, the premise is pretty straight forward: it’s a redesigned, mobile Facebook that, in addition to letting you browse your feed in an entirely new way, brings you curated articles, memes, and other content in additional feeds that Facebook is calling “Sections.” The idea behind the developments, it would seem, is to give Facebook users a Facebook Home type interface to marry trending, sharable content with a well-designed social homepage; a one-stop-social-shop, as it were.

After playing with the new app for 72 hours, I finally feel as though I have a handle on the software – and it’s genuinely a lot to get used to. The easiest adjustment was from a user experience perspective, perhaps because it’s very familiar; the flip and scroll motions are precisely those that have been made popular by already-successful apps like Flipboard and The New York Times. In Paper’s iteration of the now-common app design, the top half of the phone’s screen features automatically scrolling images scraped from the most recent posts from friends, liked pages, and so forth. To get to the stories themselves users scroll through their feed – which appears as individual cards – horizontally on the bottom half of the phone’s screen. To view a post simply expand the card by dragging it up to fill the screen; to view the associated story, flip the page up (à la Flipboard) and you’ll view the link in the full screen of the phone.

It’s not how many envisioned Facebook manifesting itself on mobile, particularly in light of the regular Facebook app, which features a vertical scroll that more closely mimics the web experience. The drastic departure from this model is the defining feature of the app, and I have to admit that once I (quite quickly) got used to the new flow, it worked much better. It’s a proper redesign of the newsfeed for the mobile experience, and it’s one that blends efficiency with simplicity.

However, I wasn’t as impressed with the rest of the application – not in its intent, but in its execution. The design remains uniform throughout, so navigation between the “Sections” is straightforward. But unlike the home newsfeed section, the content across the other “Sections” is lacking. Facebook basically claims that it takes the stories with the highest engagement from, depending on the “Section” in question, news sites, Buzzfeed-like meme generators, tech blogs, etc. But like many, I was seeing content from Facebook’s ‘favored’ sources over and over, rather than getting a diverse array of content in each “Section.” What’s more, these sections aren’t based on content that a user endorses; they’re strictly the most engaged-with stories from the sites Facebook favors. News from pages I’ve liked show up in the regular newsfeed as you’re used to, so the “Sections” feel like a somewhat paltry attempt to be a more curated Flipboard – or a more frequently updating version of Yahoo’s Digest.

As well, it’s unclear how many people are actually interested in using Facebook for news. It perhaps speaks volumes that the third Google search auto-fill drop down option for “Facebook Trending Topics” is “turn off.” Twitter is still undoubtedly king of the social and trending news space, with many using it as a constantly updating RSS feed, of sorts; it’s no surprise then that in the early days of Facebook Trends most of the response has been to call it a “Twitter-jacking,” or to bemoan the lack of personalization. Now, Facebook hasn’t stated that the trends are necessarily intended to be personalized, but the fact that users’ first reaction is to clamor for personalized trends shows that pushing “engaged” content onto users isn’t exactly what they’re looking for. Thus to push more even more content onto users through several sections of a mobile app seems rather forced.

At the same time, Paper could be a boon for advertisers. Native Advertising could become incredibly simple on the app, if Facebook wants it: interface with Facebook and your Native Ad could appear in the feed, like other stories already there. What’s more, serving video ads in the flip-up stories – to users who have gone out of their way to express interest in the section by adding it to their Paper – means that ad agencies would be serving ads to viewers already interested in a specific topic, which is likely to drive engagement and ultimately purchases. In the era of an IPO-driven Facebook, it seems like a shrewd move to offer a design that readily caters to marketers and advertisers, who have mostly had to resort to witty attempts – and shots in the dark – to go viral, particularly in a mobile setting.

That my main gripe is the repetitiveness of the curated content speaks to the overall success of the app, though. It’s well-designed, even if the design itself is mostly derivative, which means that it will be intuitive to users already used to slick mobile apps, and it turns the newsfeed into a mobile experience that finally feels refreshed and contemporary. Easier access to things like events, messages, and groups would be ideal, but that will likely happen if (or indeed, when) Paper merges with the good ol’ fashioned blue “F” we’ve become acustomed to seeing on our phones. Even if I’m not swiping right to go into the sections, I’ll likely be using Paper for my mobile Facebook experience, and that, in and of itself, is a success.