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With Paper, Facebook campaigns for coolness

The company is looking to standalone apps and anonymity to pump some trendiness back into its network.

Facebook Paper
Facebook Paper

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg can publicly assert that he's absolutely A-OK with his social network merely being a routine function of our daily lives as opposed to something we seek out for pleasure. But, as the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words.

If we're listening to Zuckerberg's actions, the message is clear: Facebook is desperate to work its way back into the cool crowd.

Thursday, the social network announced Paper, an iPhone-only application arriving February 3 and offering mobile audiences a derivative experience to the social network's status quo. The application, a product of Facebook's new Creative Labs unit, presents a modern reimagining of News Feed where photos, videos, and posts are tailored for enjoyment on smartphones. The app also comes with more than a dozen newspaper-like sections that you can use to gather news on your favorite topics.

You could call Paper a newsreader, particularly since it has hints of Flipboard, but that would be a simplification of what Facebook is trying to accomplish. Facebook isn't trying to change the way you read the news; it's trying to change the way you think of Facebook.

Paper represents the first attack in a fight to take back its reputation as a company that can innovate. Facebook is fighting competitors such Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and anyone threatening to steal away social networkers' time and attention. But, more importantly, the company is fighting against its own reputation as a stale, if not nearly expired, social destination where people come back because they feel compelled to by familial obligations, not necessarily because they like what they find on the network.

Zuckerberg has excused away this reality, likening Facebook to electricity. Electricity, he said, was "cool when it first came out, but pretty quickly people stopped talking about it because it's not the new thing." Just like Facebook.

The more important thing to track, Zuckerberg has insisted, is whether people still turn on their lights. The social network's latest numbers prove that yes, people do still flip the switch that is Facebook, and more so than ever. Of the company's 1.23 billion monthly users, more than 61 percent, or 757 million people, visit on a daily basis. With mobile and Messenger improvements, the company has done more than enough to keep us all hooked of Facebook -- for now.

But on the new product front, Facebook has had scattered success anticipating the needs and wants of its audience. Bold initiatives like the HTC First, which came with the company's derided Home suite of apps for Android, were perceived as big misses indicative of a disconnect between Facebook and its users. Graph Search, though headed soon to mobile, doesn't appear to have altered the way members use the Web site. The new News Feed wasn't universally loved. And even advertisers have reportedly shied away from buying into TV-like ads that auto play in News Feed.

Based on these missteps, it would be hard not to conclude that Facebook has lost its way -- if it ever had a clear direction to begin with.

Now Paper and the series of standalone apps that are in the pipeline are part of Facebook's three-year plan to infuse new life and renewed purpose into a social network that has become bloated and undesirable for tweens and teens. The Paper application seems largely directed at mature audiences who enjoy reading the news, but it has enough pizazz in its touch-based design that it could rope in a few youngsters as well.

Zuckerberg has promised even more singular applications, one of which sounds centered around groups. The company is even parting ways with its strict adherence to real names and will be, like Whisper, allowing people to log in to some of the new apps anonymously. That alone speaks to Facebook's anxiousness to ride social trends to be one of the cool kids.

Paper and its cohorts won't immediately repair Facebook's reputation. There's a very good chance kids will reject these apps the way they did Poke and Camera. After all, in trying hard to be trendy, Facebook risks being looked at as one of those out of touch parents who just doesn't get it.

But, for the now, the promise of fun and engaging apps are buying the company time with a group that can be more fickle with their affection than teenagers: Wall Street. Investors, already impressed with the social network's progress in the fourth quarter, are driving up Facebook's share price and market value in anticipation of what's to come.