One of the pleasures of using social networks is that they can help you discover publicly shared stories of interest. On Twitter, this is a prime activity — scanning a stream of short posts that often contain a link to, or a pithy comment about, a hot news item or trend.
This is a lot more difficult on Facebook, where such public stories compete in its News Feed much more often with friends’ vacation posts, birthday greetings, jokes, restaurant check-ins, and other personal items that aren’t meant for all users.
Sure, you can follow, without friending, a news source, like a newspaper; or a person who primarily posts publicly about “stories” as opposed to personal matters. But the giant social network thinks these items appear too infrequently in most of its members’ feeds.
So, this month, Facebook introduced a standalone iPhone app designed to surface these news items and stories more easily, while still allowing you to peruse and post traditional status updates in a way that’s much more handsome and eye-catching. It’s called Paper, and I’ve been testing it on an iPhone 5s. Versions for Android and iPad are in the works, Facebook says.
I like Paper, but it has a few drawbacks that need to be ironed out. It’s a different way of using Facebook that’s visually arresting and easy to navigate. But I don’t find it as quick as Twitter or as comprehensive as a dedicated, magazine-like newsreader like Flipboard.
Paper isn’t a wholesale redesign of Facebook. It won’t affect the way the service looks and works on the Web or in your existing Facebook app. Instead, it’s the latest in a planned series of separate apps that highlight features of the complex service that the company believes are underused or are facing competition. Perhaps the best-known previous example is Messenger, a 2011 app that’s dedicated to Facebook’s built-in instant messaging service.
Paper attempts to be two things in one app. In large part, it’s a news reader, which presents publicly posted stories from sources you might not be following and from categories you choose, and presents the links they contain from the originating site in full-screen mode.
But it also has a section — oddly labeled “Facebook” — where you can see your friends’ posts on your News Feed, and add your own. And even when you’re not in the “Facebook” section of the app, you still see the familiar icons at the top for notifications, messages and friend requests.
Unlike the standard Facebook app, which will continue to be offered, Paper doesn’t attempt to access every feature of the giant service. For instance, you can’t see lists of events like birthdays on Paper. Instead, Paper’s Facebook section focuses on your News Feed and your Timeline.
But the bigger feature is the news reader, which, in the same handsome manner, displays news and stories from a variety of categories you can choose, whether you signed up to follow the sources or not. Examples include Headlines, Tech, Home, Enterprise, Flavor, Planet and Score. These are made up of stories that were posted for public consumption on Facebook.
Whereas perusing the regular Facebook iPhone app is mainly about endless scrolling of small entries, Paper is about swiping between full-screen entries, including full-bleed photos. In fact, photos are its best feature. Each main screen is split between a large photo area at the top, which auto-scrolls to show interesting photos contained in stories, and an area at the bottom where you can select other stories. You manually change whole topic sections by swiping horizontally on the large photos at the top.
For instance, in “Headlines,” I found a large photo of a story on Colorado’s oil and gas boom. If you tap on it, you get a full-screen view of the post about the story that the Denver Post placed on Facebook. And if you tap on the link, the screen does a visually engaging “flip” to the original story on the newspaper’s website. You can get back to the main screen by swiping down on the story, and then on the post.
Underneath the big pictures is a scrolling carousel with small thumbnails of other stories in that category. Once you tap on these, they take over the whole screen and behave the same way as the larger suggested stories.
Once a story is opened, you can also swipe horizontally to view the posts in the section in full-screen mode, replacing the scrolling navigation used in standard Facebook.
This navigation is so different from the traditional manner of using Facebook that Paper includes clever vocal and visual prompts when you first start using it.
The selection of stories for the topical sections is partly done by human curators, who try to choose a mix of items, sources, text-based stories and photo-based stories that they hope will grab the reader’s interest.
Where Paper really shines is with photo posts. Not only do these occupy the entire screen, but they work better than most photos do in the natural vertical mode in which phones are typically held. If you just tilt the phone from side to side, a wide photo will display areas that might normally be cut off.
For instance, in my tests, I spotted a photo of a kids’ soccer game in which the ball was visible by tilting to one side; most of the watching team appeared as you tilted to the other.
Paper is the first product from a Facebook unit called Creative Labs. While the app is very well done, it has some limitations and drawbacks. For instance, unlike Flipboard, it doesn’t draw its news and stories from multiple social networks or direct feeds from publishers — only from public posts on Facebook. So if a story appeared only on Twitter, or on another site or service, you’re out of luck. That makes it a limited news reader.
While Facebook boasts that Paper, unlike the standard Facebook app, lets you compose posts in a way that shows exactly how they will look, I found at least one instance where a photo in one of my posts appeared partly cut off after posting.
And there are performance issues. In my tests, the program occasionally froze for a few seconds, and didn’t allow me to swipe to another section. A colleague using a new iPhone 5s with plenty of storage found it painfully slow, so much so that she switched back to the standard Facebook app.
But, overall, Paper is a beautiful and satisfying new way to see posts on Facebook that you might otherwise have missed.