Facebook just launched Paper, their first new mobile app in a slew of mobile applications they intend to release this year. Described by Facebook “Paper makes storytelling more beautiful with an immersive design and fullscreen, distraction-free layouts. We’ve also made it easier to craft and share beautiful stories of your own.” Very telling is the fact that Facebook is touting this as a “distraction-free” experience. Compare that to the existing iPhone app experience and you can see that they removed as much as possible. They’ve even hidden the bar with the battery meter and clock visible at the top of most apps including Twitter’s mobile app. Facebook has essentially taken over as much of the experience as possible. This isn’t the first time they’ve tried this.
Go Big or Go “Home”
Currently Paper is only available for the iPhone, but Android users might remember Facebook launching an app called Home which was released in early 2013. The idea was to essentially supplant the Android operating system by layering Facebook on top of it. In doing this, Facebook had hoped to prove itself a mobile social operating system. In turn, this move would dramatically increase the network’s time on screens and engagement. Instead, a vast majority of initial users hated the app. A common word to describe the app in reviews was “intrusive”. People obviously enjoyed Facebook, but not so much that they wanted it to take over their entire mobile experience.
Around the same time Facebook also announced the slow roll out of a radically different and much more visual newsfeed. The radically different newsfeed was meant to replace the current one for all users across all devices over time, but it was recently announced that results of initial testing was not as positive as expected. Recently, a source at Facebook said “… it’s back to the drawing board on a better News Feed, while using the failed first launch as a data point for creating a better Version 2. When users finally do see something new, it will likely be a far less drastic change, incorporating only some of the modifications, and only those that worked better than others.”
If First You Don’t Succeed, Iterate and Try Again
That brings us back to Paper. It’s the next stage in the user-experience experiment that Facebook has been conducting for the last few years. Instead of taking over your entire mobile operating system or dramatically changing your existing newsfeed, Paper’s approach is to provide you with a completely new app to experience the social network. A compromise of sorts between the two. It repackages status updates, images and links from publishers into something more akin to a news reader. Everything about the app is more gesture based and demands that you first go through an app tour to learn how to navigate the new experience.
Publishers Take Center Stage
Facebook has little need to attract users these days. Instead, the network needs to work on retaining folks and discovering new ways to push a more balanced mix of content through news feeds. Paper’s approach isn’t to alter the frequency of content. Its job is to see how people interact and consume the same content wrapped in a new experience. A new experience that has become much more media-centric. While a feed called “Facebook” is focused on friend’s updates and activity as well as the brands you follow, other content is being introduced in slick fashion. For example, you can now slide between more easily identifiable themes of content like Creators, Tech, LOL, Family Matters, Planet and others. A section called Headlines attempts to be your go-to source for what’s happening in the news. Beyond the initial Facebook channel, the rest of the content seems vetted by something or someone at Facebook. In other words, this content is from publishers you’ve never chosen to follow previously. This seems to be an evolution of the existing, but little used, ability to create and follow interest lists which has existed for a quite some time now. You see what they are doing there? Creating interest lists manually has proven tedious at best. Just ask the majority of Twitter users. They are testing us to see if this approach makes discovery of content from publishers more palatable. They’ve even gone so far as to add a nifty new feature so you can save stories to view later via your favorite online clipping app (something I’ve wanted for years).
No Advertising … For Now
Marketers will find one big thing missing from the Paper app … advertising. In a recent post by Chris Penn he predicts, “If Paper gets traction and takes off, expect Facebook’s ubiquitous advertising system to eventually make its debut with sponsored cards and stories appearing in the Paper stream.” I agree. How soon will we see this happen will be completely proportionate to how quickly users adopt and favor the app as their Facebook interface of choice. Chris Penn also mentions in his post that he thinks brand pages have been completely been left out of Paper. I did see a couple non-publisher brands in my feed including a sports team, non-profit and mobile navigation app platform Waze.
The Year of Fragmentation Experimentation
Paper is only the start of what Facebook has said will be a series of niche mobile apps released this year. In fact, the company has formed an internal group called Facebook Creative Labs with the purpose of moving fast and breaking things. Although Paper feels very much like an extension of Facebook I expect to see them release a number of mobile apps that will feel far less familiar. Why? Because of the success of apps like Instagram, Vine, SnapChat, WhatsApp and others. The team at Twitter is doing this already with mobile app Jelly and minimalistic publishing platform Medium. These are not just new ventures. They are vehicles to experiment and discover what sticks. What do you think of Paper?