Facebook wants to be a newspaper. And it wants you to be writing some of its best stories.
To that end, the social giant announced on Thursday it will soon launch Paper, a mobile application that entirely re-envisions how Facebook users discover — and create — much of the content flowing through the massive social network.
The stand-alone app is the fruit of a multi-year effort under VP of Product Chris Cox, an attempt to aesthetically and thematically rethink how Facebook presents itself to users. The project — something many insiders never thought would come to fruition — has been a particular challenge for Facebook, which has relied largely on the content distribution power of the News Feed since it was first introduced in 2006.
On the surface, Paper seems like a mere overhaul of the Facebook app’s user interface. Instead of scrolling through a feed like the familiar main Facebook app, browsing through Paper is akin to thumbing through a deck of cards — or sheets of paper, if you will — a drastically different way of browsing mobile content. And just like the Facebook app you already have, all those cards are populated with content such as status updates, photos and other things you normally find floating throughout Facebook.
One big difference: Paper heavily emphasizes the tools you use to post to Facebook. In the composition area, you’re able to see what your status update (or photo, or check-in) will look like after you’ve posted it. In Paper, these “stories” are strikingly different from what you’re used to in your main Facebook app; photos are full-bleed and navigable, videos take up the whole screen. Each word of your status update is aligned with careful, deliberate precision.
In other words, Facebook is paying the same precise attention to detail as Medium, Evan Williams’ buzzy collaborative blogging startup. Even the philosophy of the two companies seems to be the same: Present your audience with better tools and a pleasant aesthetic environment, and they’ll naturally start creating better content.
“As you start changing the way you’re displaying this content, we hope that it will change the way people think about posting content,” Mike Matas, Paper’s product design lead, said in an interview. “Because the two are obviously really connected.”
But just as important, as Matas explains it, “It’s no fun to make a bunch of great stuff if no one ever sees it.”
Which is where the other half of Paper comes in. As Re/code reported previously, Paper is split up into different sections based on story topics — as disparate as technology to cute animals, from photography to top headlines. The sections contain a mix of stories from outside publications like the New York Times, photos and video, and even status updates from any number of Facebook users.
Additionally, in a drastic departure from Facebook’s roots, those stories aren’t solely algorithmically surfaced; editors who work for Facebook will be picking out what they think are the best and most popular stories that you’ll want to see.
The idea here is simple, yet ties in deeply to a number of Facebook’s various ambitions. The site has a wealth of public content on its network, posted openly by users so that any other Facebook users can see it. But until now, there hasn’t been an easy way for people to find it. Thus, if Facebook can organize that stuff by topic and make it more easily discoverable, it’ll inspire you to comb through it all — and perhaps to pen your own stuff that much more.
The “old Facebook” — the app that you and I are used to — isn’t cut out for that type of discovery. You’ll certainly find a wealth of content from your friends and publications you follow, but you’d be hard pressed to find anything else being shared on Facebook. And instead of having to go to an entirely different network to skim through public content — such as Twitter — Facebook can instead plug your existing network into a new interface for discovery.
“We get to start with an app that’s already vibrant with content,” said Paper product manager Michael Reckhow. “You see these other apps that launch as new content networks. And you go in and there’s no content. We’re going to be able to start with a huge head start.”
The idea is ambitious, equal parts familiar and yet completely different from what Facebook has been doing in its News Feed for years. To pull it off, the company even needed to silo the Paper team off by itself, “like a startup,” as Reckhow describes it. It’s the first product to come out of Facebook’s “Creative Labs” — sets of small teams that are spun off to work on different projects which may move faster in isolation. Paper, for instance, was built by a team of 15 people, fairly (but not wholly) independent of many other parts of the organization.
And for a company like Facebook, perhaps this modus operandi makes sense — at least in attempting ambitious departures from traditional Facebook endeavors. A drastic redesign of a core product like the News Feed, for instance, could send massive repercussions throughout the entire organization. And if users don’t take kindly to a given change, it could certainly have an effect on Facebook’s bottom line (which, for 2013, has been doing pretty well).
The flip side of that is, it takes a lot to get people to download an entirely new app. Paper could make major waves upon its debut — or it could suffer a Poke-sized belly flop.
Still, as Mark Zuckerberg mentioned on the company’s earnings call on Wednesday, we should expect more of this sort of multi-app strategy from Facebook. I’d expect, too, that it comes in the form of small teams inside of the Creative Labs setup, free from the strictures of how Facebook products routinely ship.
After all, it’s hard to keep “moving fast and breaking things” — the company motto — once you’ve grown to employ thousands of people, even if you’re Facebook.
Paper will be available exclusively on iPhones initially, debuting in Apple’s App Store on February 3.
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