Paper and the craft of securing Facebook's future

With the new app for reading and writing the news, the social network sets a different tone for what's to come in the next decade.

A new dawn. Hacker Square at Facebook's Menlo Park, Calif., campus. Facebook

Facebook will enter its second decade by starting over entirely.

The new beginning comes courtesy of Paper, a standalone iPhone application for reading and writing the news, which arrived on February 3, the eve of Facebook's 10-year anniversary.

Metaphorically, Paper is the 2014 version of Facebook, unencumbered by the rigid walls erected over the past 10 years, yet supported by the foundation of 1.23 billion people.

More literally, Paper presents News Feed's standbys -- photos, videos, and articles -- in new formats designed for enjoyment on smartphones. The app also comes with newspaper-like sections such as sports, entertainment, food, and even cute (for adorable animal pics) that you can add to your personalized zine to gather news on the topics you care about.

Back to the lab
The app is the first of several singular applications to be developed and released by Facebook Creative Labs. The unit is a startup-like group separated from the operational strictures that come along with a company of Facebook's size. The team has been granted, by none other than CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the freedom to do its own thing so that people like Product Manager Michael Reckhow and Product Designer Mike Matas can come up with radically different ideas.

The team checks in with Zuckerberg for guidance, of course, but the group mostly answers to its individual creative whims.

The company's 10-year anniversary seems as good an opportunity as any to trot out Creative Labs and set the tone for what's to come in the years ahead.

Recomposing Facebook With Paper, Facebook has deconstructed the network into little bits and put a few of the pieces back together to make something else entirely. As a standalone app, the ad-free Paper can only hurt Facebook if it becomes so popular that people dramatically cut back on their usage of the main app, where Facebook needs a large audience to make money from ads.

The reconstruction effort started with cosmetic surgery to the tools that pump blood into Facebook's most-viewed body part: News Feed. News Feed is the source for all that is happening in your network, but it's not exactly designed for elegant storytelling.

"[Paper] started with this idea...that we wanted to build great tools to give people a way to...craft their story and control the presentation," Reckhow told CNET. "As networks for sharing have grown up, the network has always grown faster than the tools."

Paper, as Reckhow and Matas explained, was built to be a publishing tool for people with audiences large and small. You'll find this most evident when you create a post, as the app provides you with a live preview of how your post is going look.

Facebook Paper
Facebook Paper Facebook

"So, as you're composing [a post] you can see how writing a longer post, for example, makes the text get smaller, or writing a shorter post you get larger text," Reckhow said.

Visually, you'll notice right away that you can make more of an impact with fewer words, he said. If you add a photo, it pops in to the preview. The same is true with locations, add one and a map is dropped into the post preview. "This allows you to take a craft in forming your post."

The attention paid to the art of composition speaks to Facebook's desire with Paper to create more of an open community where people of any stripe can find a captive audience for their art, be it photos, videos, or stories.

The two sides to Paper
Paper, then, is equal parts network and newswire. And like any other digital publishing medium, the app is split in two, defined by those who create and those who consume. Paper can be your Twitter if you want it to be. It can be your Tumblr. Or your Medium. Or your Flipboard.

And Matas and Reckhow say that unlike any of those other networks, setting up Paper to your liking is easy and fun.

"It's so frustrating when you start out and you've downloaded some new app for content. You have to spend 10 minutes configuring and trying to find all the particular sources...that's no fun," Reckhow said. "We wanted Paper to be something you could open up, and, within seconds, you've configured it to have some of the most engaging content out there."

He's talking specifically about Paper's interpretation of News Feed and the dozen or so topic-themed sections that you can add to your Paper. Sections are Facebook's version of a wire service, where news is gathered from the stories that people and Pages post publicly to Facebook. Sections are a mix of posts surfaced by algorithms and plucked by human editors, with the primary goal being to present you with content you haven't seen before.

facebook paper articles
Facebook

Sections offer a new view for Facebook updates that would otherwise go unnoticed, either because they fly by in News Feed or you don't yet follow one of the many sources that are publishing must-read articles or must-see photographs.

Matas and Reckhow will tell you that sections are all about introducing you to people producing high-quality stories. And while that's partly true, the bigger picture is that sections turn Facebook into a viable source for staying connected to breaking news, pop culture, and memes. In this sense, Paper achieves what hashtags, trending topics, and other product releases haven't; it makes Facebook finally make sense for those who want to do more than connect with friends.

Sidestepping demise
That brings us back to Paper being the 2014 version of Facebook, where content is just as important as connections and the network possess a keen awareness for what's happening in the world at any given moment. It's the first standalone app to redefine Facebook, but it won't be the last.

If Facebook is to exist 10 years from now, it will be because the Creative Labs team helped the company sidestep the seemingly inevitable MySpace- and Friendster-like demise that happens when people move on to the next big thing.

Update, Monday 9:54 a.m. PT: With link to live application.

 

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