With last week’s launch of Facebook’s new app Paper, it’s hard not to wonder if every Facebook product is cursed. As doubts about the social network’s continued longevity become a growing concern, the narrative surrounding Paper has overwhelmingly skewed toward whether or not it will help the company stay relevant.
What makes Paper interesting, then, isn't whether it will shake up competition between Feedly, Flipboard, and other reader apps. It's about one question: How much of a difference can a new approach to UI make? Can it overpower a brand as familiar as Facebook, with all the connotations that come with it?
Outside of its striking design, which has been pored over and detailed at length, Paper only adds one thing to the typical Facebook experience—more outside content. It bundles your Facebook feed with a currently limited RSS reader in an extremely attractive package.
"It's a really polished UI for a news aggregator," says Andrew Maier, cofounder and editor-in-chief of UX Booth. "It's something that I feel has been done many, many times. There are lots of people who are trying to put a newspaper feel on a RSS feed, or a social magazine."
But is Facebook ready for magazine status? Or is that a stretch?
"I think it's possible to reposition yourself, but I don't think it's possible to change how people understand your business," says Maier. "Seeing the layout of paper it feels journalistic, it seems like it wants to be a publication… We're in a weird place in news outlets, in journalism, where the line between citizen journalism and formal investigative journalism—that line is blurring. The consumption is changing, and Facebook is trying to capitalize on that."
In a recent blog post, Adam Sigel, UX product manager for Aereo, argues that Facebook’s approach to Paper is solving the wrong problem. Design was never an issue with Facebook, it was content—and now we have a lovely new app for displaying everything on Facebook that already annoys all of us.
The Paper interface will undoubtedly be better for at least one thing—ads. By removing some of the linearity of the timeline and devoting half the screen real estate to curation, Facebook is creating an environment to deliver promoted content in a way that feels less intrusive to users. Paper will likely lead to more revenue for Facebook, but will it address their core user erosion? Am I, a Twitter addict, likely to come back to Facebook for my news? Can curated content bring back the tweens? I’m not optimistic, but the app is still in its infancy.
The problem with Paper is that it’s a mere curiosity. It adds little value for those who have already decided that Facebook holds no value for them, even with its renewed focus on content. As Kyle VanHemert writes in Wired:
...our relationship with Facebook today isn’t one of dependence so much as habit. At this point, we have all sorts of avenues for sharing, promoting, and consuming. Every time someone posts something to a competitor, that’s one page that doesn’t end up in Facebook’s lovely magazine.
Besides, it could really hurt your thumbs.