Facebook’s latest standalone app Paper was released yesterday and is already the second most downloaded free app on iTunes (behind Flappy Bird, because people apparently hate themselves). There are already a number of reviews such as Time, Verge, Cnet, and the MIT Technology Review along with several thousand others. The reviews are all mostly positive and highlight how this may be the future of how Facebook content is delivered on a mobile device. That may be true but the current iteration may be a brilliant mistake by Facebook.
First, make no mistake, it is a brilliant new design. Not only is it something new, borrowing elements from other news readers like Flipboard, it is still highly approachable even by people who are only used to the old Facebook design or who haven’t used news aggregation apps. There is also a subtle but very engaging tutorial process within the app–it doesn’t cram all the steps to use the app up front but tells you about features as you use the app more and more. An amazing user interface and tutorial will no doubt make this an engaging app.
The app also is a fantastic news reader. Granted, it still has some limits–only sources that Facebook provides, a limit on the number of topics/streams you can swipe left/right between–but as a news reader it is a great option and certainly more viable than the Facebook app ever was. In that sense it will be highly competitive with other news readers.
But many reviews are focusing on how this app could be the future of all Facebook and that would be a mistake in the current version. Certainly, all the major Facebook functionality is there. Your primary source/stream is Facebook stories posted by your friends. Text, photos, comments, Likes, they’re all there just in a new visual representation. You can even get your Facebook notifications and message alerts through the app making it a wholesale replacement for your Facebook app if you wanted.
The mistake is that the current app loses what makes Facebook valuable. We visit Facebook to interact with our friends: to see what our friends are doing and make comments, to see pictures, and the general content that they have shared. While we may encounter news on Facebook either as stories shared by our friends or articles that appear from sources in our News feed, for the vast majority of Facebook users this is not the primary reason we visit Facebook. And although this traditional Facebook content is the first source of information for the Paper app it is quickly overwhelmed by all the other streams of data that have nothing to do with your friends.
Once you have swiped away from the Facebook feed you are now in non-Facebook land. Gone are the articles that your friends have shared or commented on so you may be more likely to read them. Gone are any kind of introduction or reason to read some new story. Gone is any compelling reason for me to care about the content except the content itself.
It’s a better newspaper, visually, but isn’t Facebook about connecting people? Mark Zuckerberg’s post today about the 10th anniversary of Facebook speaks of the importance of connecting people but the majority of the Paper app is completely disconnected from your friends and content. It is a lovely interface, true, but if someone else can duplicate that interface then there is nothing better about the Paper app right now in terms of it being a social news application. In many ways, it’s worse in that it may reduce the time you spend interacting with your friends (Facebook’s primary asset) and instead interacting with news stories that have nothing to do with Facebook itself.
As with all social applications, time will tell what Paper will become or how it will be used. But I find it odd that Facebook would release a standalone application that takes it so far away from what Facebook is really good at and says they are all about–connecting people. Paper connects people to news at the cost of shutting out your network of friends. If that is the future of Facebook then that leaves the door open for a lot of competition.