By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)
Facebook is all grown up.
Ten years old today, Facebook finished its first decade of existence by releasing what is almost universally being hailed as "their best app yet" on Monday. After a few years of stumbles in the mobile market (Poke, Home) and a steady chorus of users frustrated by the changes that have favored major publishers, the new app has been met with open arms.
Paper, which is currently only available for the iPhone and iPod touch, looks to solve the mess of a smörgåsbord that the Facebook News Feed has become. It partially succeeds at this, but where it really shines is in the fit and polish of the app itself.
Facebook has borrowed a lot of the core design philosophy of Paper from the wave of "personal magazine" apps that have found a dedicated audience over the past few years. Most of those made their debut on Apple's iPad before migrating to smaller devices and other tablets.
The closest analog to Paper is Flipboard, which relies on curated feeds and user-controlled RSS to manage content. If that sentence seems wonky to you, don't worry. The wonkiness of personalized magazines is exactly the target that Paper destroys. As such, it isn't for power users, this app is for the casual consumer of news.
While the feeds in Paper are customizable it is in a limited fashion. The initial start-up tutorial--perhaps the best I've ever seen in an app from any developer--guides the user through the selection of broad categories beyond the core Facebook news feed. Headlines, Tech, a photography section called "Exposure" and other verticals are arrayed as cards along the bottom of the app. Flick up and it becomes part of the feed, flick down and that section of "the paper" is gone.
That framework is how the entire app works. Cards along the bottom allow for quick scrolling of a feed. Flick up and individual items can be examined. Tap or flip up again to go deeper. Flick down and the item collapses back. In less than a minute I was fully oriented.
The one major point of frustration: there is no way to force a refresh of any of the feeds. This function is controlled by Facebook on the server side. The news seemed to stand still for hours at one point yesterday while the desktop client continued to add items.
Paper is, above all else, buttery. The transitions are almost universally smooth. From a user interface standpoint I've only had two problems so far. One, it is not possible to get to a user's profile pic by tapping on the thumbnail of the image. Two, vertical scrolling of certain cards can lead to them creeping back into the "deck" at the bottom of the screen. I imagine that I'll get used to the former, and that the latter is a bug that will be ironed out over time.
The UI came about thanks to a new tool that Facebook built in order to create Paper. That's the latest sign that Zuckerberg, Inc. is a mature company: it understands that if you want to make a real impact on the way the world works you need to shape the tools as well as the content. They started with Apple's Quartz Composer and then streamlined that tool. That it then released this development environment--dubbed Origami--to the open source community via GitHub is a sign that they haven't lost touch with their dorm room roots.
It's The Content, Stupid
The question Facebook still faces is if great design can make a toilet bowl anything other than a toilet bowl. For many users that's exactly what the service has become: the unfortunate receptacle of the detritus of their social lives. Political screeds, Buzzfeed memes, un-selfconcious self promotion, and the million other sins of over-sharing that have seemingly gotten worse in the six years that I've been using Facebook.
(Yes, I was just talking about my own behavior. Not really. Okay, maybe.)
The other "sections" of Paper fill the function of a newspaper, but front and center in the app is the old News Feed, turned on its side and simply dubbed "Facebook" here. Instead of regulating popular news items from major sources to the "Headlines" section those items are still being shared in the central feed.
This is a bit of a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" problem for Facebook. The value to advertisers and publishers remains the ability to get their content into the feed users are most likely to see. The value for users is to connect deeply with the material that matters most to the people they care about.
The needs of both interests groups are being balanced by algorithms that haven't yet reached the level of poetic insight required for the job. The interface feels human, but the content still feels like a firehose full of random.
What gives me pause, and hope, is how status updates look in the app. They remind me most of the kind of statements that spread well on Tumblr, that bastion of sharing, a pithy paragraph or two look great as a card in Paper.
Going beyond text, certain landscape-oriented photographs are presented as items that can be "peeked" at by tilting the phone around. That feature is so neat that I'm dying to see one of my own pics presented that way. For the life of me I can't figure out how to get one into the format. (I guess that's UI problem number three, if we're keeping score.)
With the content being presented in a more "respectable" fashion, the hope seems to be that users will rise up to the challenge of creating better content. The app also makes sharing material in any feed to a user's public timeline as simple as pushing a single button, which uses the iconography of Twitter for an instant, context free reshare.
At first I thought my friends would be frustrated by how many times I pulled that stunt during the first day with Paper. Instead I've watched the "likes" pile up. My Facebook persona has become more playful thanks to Paper, which was not an outcome I antcipated when I allowed the app onto my iPhone.
This is where the dark alchemy of social media excels: the feedback loop of positive reinforcement. If anything I would expect the speed with which the core Facebook feed turns over to begin to match the velocity of Twitter.
Still, if I was given the choice to banish everything but personal status updates and pictures from the central feed I'd gladly take it. At the moment there is no social media service, save for perhaps Instagram, that is limited to interpersonal communication with a broad audience. The very thing that made social media interesting has gone the way of the dinosaurs. Paper, sadly, isn't Jurassic Park.
What's In A Name?
A lot of hay is being made about the name of the app. "Paper" is also the name of an iPad drawing app that has long been the darling of the design set. This is the segment of the technoratti that have passionate debates about typography in the same way that wrestling fans extol the virtues of C.M. Punk or fanboys vent their rage over the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman.
It is also from this pool that was Facebook drafted the Paper team. There's a lot of former Apple employees who worked on this, and design hero Loren Brichter (Tweetie, Letterpress) is amongst them. Which means the team knew exactly what tree it was barking up when they released the app under that name.
The other famed app named "Paper" is by the firm FiftyThree, who won the 2012 App of the Year award from Apple for that design. The firm went all-in on the branding this past year when it shipped a lovely companion stylus which they named "Pencil." Pencil and Paper. Together again, at last. Charming.
Yet claiming the word "Paper" as a brand name is the height of arrogance for anyone. It is arrogant of Facebook now, and it was arrogant of FiftyThree two years ago. It also is a little disingenuous for FiftyThree to be casting themselves as David in the Goliath tale when they have played the role of name usurper in the past.
What's really going on is this: the technoratti regularly reward those who are first in the arrogance sweepstakes. The problem comes when arrogance is married with naïvety. Anyone who takes an everyday term and tries to stake it out as a strategic asset is asking to have their world burned down around them.
At the end of the day these two apps do entirely different things. They serve different needs and their names play off different aspects of the word "paper." Facebook's app is a reference to "reading the morning paper," while FiftyThree's name comes from "tear off a sheet of paper." If there isn't room amongst the million apps in the iOS App Store for two of them named "Paper" then we--or at least Apple--has bigger problems than this one incident.
To avoid what controversy there is, amongst this most vocal of minorities, Facebook could have just upped the arrogance ante from the start and called their app "The Paper."
The Way Forward
Paper is a reinvention of the Facebook mobile experience, but it is not as bold of a departure as many were anticipating. Notifications and messages still hover at the top of the page, and the annoying "chat heads" that were introduced with "Home" for Android devices still persist. This means that Paper isn't a pure feed reading experience.
As someone who uses, and likes, Facebook's Messenger app I would actually prefer if chat were banished from Paper. The talk leading up to the release of this app was that Facebook was going to pursue a strategy of unbundling its services on mobile. Paper represents a half-step in that direction.
The feature set of Paper is not a complete replication of the older Facebook app. What is missing are a way to manage Facebook Events.
Given how many people use Facebook the Events ecosystem should have managed to supplant Evite as the go-to social calendar management system long ago. Instead the Events tab winds up flooded by options which clog up the calendar view. While it is possible to integrate Facebook's calendar with iOS, at this point I've long abandoned the practice. Instead of giving me an overview of the shared social world I live in, Facebook Events feel like spam.
The assumption is that Facebook is working on a stand alone Events/Calendar app. If they bring as much thought to that as they have to Paper, I'll be happy to try integrating it into my life.
Just by reframing the core Facebook experience the company has managed to make a service that had begun to feel like a chore fresh again. The deep content balance problems that plague Facebook remain, but with a new set of design metaphors the company is tackling the problems head on.
No matter how deep one's hate of Facebook may go, the service is nigh unavoidable. Any hope that a satisfying experience can be had while interacting with Facebook was bound to be met with cheers. That the company has pushed forward the art of mobile app design with a tool like Origami means that those cheers have been well earned.
Public media's TurnstyleNews.com, covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.