Some Thoughts on Facebook Paper

After being announced last week, Facebook Paper is now available on the App Store. I’ve been playing around with it today and have some quick impressions I’d like to share.

Facebook is Learning from Past Failures

A lot of the interactions and general design of Facebook Paper remind me of Facebook Home, Facebook’s Android initiative that launched in 2013 to little fanfare (see the Google Play rating). Rather than dwell on that, it seems to me that Facebook took the best elements from that design (like the swiping interactions, chat heads, and emphasis on content/images) and brought them to Paper. After going back and playing with Facebook Home today, the similarities are striking, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Paper is the better implementation of these ideas.

Facebook is Willing to Cannabalize Itself

A lot of the hype around Paper has positioned it as the first, truly mobile-first envisioning of Facebook. Among the headlines I saw on Techmeme today, these two jumped out at me:

When you read what the creators of the app have to say, it becomes even more obvious. From Josh Constine’s TechCrunch article on the app:

When I asked the team leaders behind Paper if they still used the old one, product manager Michael Reckhow diplomatically responded “mmhmm, yeah”, but designer Mike Matas just smiled coyly. I pounced, repeating my question just to him. “Once in a while”. He’d spilled the beans. Paper could be a Facebook killer.

“Mostly I use this [Paper]” Matas continued. “There’s some features that it doesn’t have like if uhh….Events is a good example, like if I need to go find an event.” I pressed, “But otherwise you’re finding this does enough?” “For my usage, yeah”, Matas replied.

[…]

When I visited 1 Hacker Way Friday to demo Paper, I knew I’d see plenty of intricate animations and next-level UI tricks. But I was less interested in how we might use Paper than in how it might change how we use Facebook’s main app. I’d heard whispers that certain higher-ups at the company had almost entirely switched from Facebook for iOS to Paper, and some of the standalone app’s team members haven’t had the old Facebook installed on their phones in months.

Facebook seems to be openly acknowledging that their default app (and desktop site for that matter) suffers from a huge amount of clutter, be it through notifications, ads, news feed posts, amongst many other things. At the same time, they are taking note of the relative simplicity of other services, like Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. With Paper, it’s clear that they are not going to cede ground to those services without a fight, even if it comes at the expense of the traditional Facebook app. From the end of Constine’s article:

What if Paper gets so popular it starts becoming people’s default Facebook mobile experience? Reckhow says “It’s a good problem to have”.

Facebook Now Understands the Limits of the Social Graph

Facebook’s products over the last year have never felt like something I could use because much of the content and experience was generated by a user’s network. Whether or not something like Facebook Home, or Graph Search is a good experience for me is totally dependent on the quality of the content that my network of friends is generating on Facebook. As Benedict Evans put it on Twitter:

Facebook still doesn’t quite seem to get that most of us do not have beautiful friends who take beautiful photos with great cameras

If my friends take shitty pictures of mundane things, that’s what I see in my News Feed. No amount of brilliant UI design can change that. If no one I know posts reviews or checks-in to restaurants on Facebook, then using graph search to find a place for dinner isn’t a good option either. No amount of data science can make up for the absence of data.

This is part of why neither of these Facebook products really took off. To me, they always seemed to be products designed by the people in Menlo Park, for the people in Menlo Park, and few others. These products only work well for everyone in an alternate universe where everyone uses Facebook the way Facebook wants them to. Great apps, with great design, sure. Great content? Not so much.

The addition of curated content channels in Paper signals that Facebook is aware of this shortcoming, and wants to provide a more consistent experience across its user-base. As Lauren Hockenson says over at GigaOm:

What this all adds up to is an ability to look at Facebook briefly and glean information without actually wading through the white noise of hundreds of acquaintances. If you don’t want to look at babies and puppies, then you can avoid babies and puppies. In fact, if you don’t even care about your friends at all, you can ignore their updates and photos wholesale by never migrating back to the Facebook tab. It mercifully removes floods of Bitstrips, quiz posts, viral shares and junk people post each day. It boosts Facebook’s intelligence factor, which, for a curmudgeon like me, makes the app ideal.

Prior to Paper, you would just exit the Facebook app if you wanted to avoid the noise of your Facebook News Feed. That’s not good news for Facebook. By demoting the social aspect and positioning Paper as a portal to all sorts of relevant content, Facebook is attempting to mitigate this.

Is Facebook Paper for me?

It’s a bit too early to say. I love the interactions, animations, and the design of the app. On the social side, not much has changed, and my usage of the “Facebook” tab will likely mirror my relatively low usage of the traditional Facebook App.

On the content side, I feel like most of the needs that Paper seeks to address are more capably met by Twitter1. On Twitter, I play the role of curator on a very granular level, by following accounts that I find interesting. I also end up having serendipitous interactions with people outside of my own social circle, who share those same interests or are experts in their fields. Facebook Paper doesn’t really offer either of these experiences.

Still, I’d like to give Paper a fair chance. I’ve already gone ahead and deleted the main Facebook app from my iPhone, and plan on going the next week with Paper as my primary Facebook client. For the last two years, Facebook has had me locked in because of the Messenger app and little else2. I’m curious to see if they can add some more reasons to that sheet.


  1. To everyone complaining about Twitter’s web and app UI, I have no idea what you’re talking about because I use Tweetbot and Twitteriffic, and you should too, assuming you value delightful user interfaces. 

  2. To clarify, if there was no Messenger app, I’d be more willing to quit the service entirely.