With a new app called Paper, Facebook is hoping to make it easier for users to find more than just their long-lost friends.
Released last week for the iPhone, the app represents a wholesale rethinking of how users interact with the social network. Instead of focusing on a single "news feed" filled with posts from other users, the app is designed to be more like a newspaper, with sections that focus on particular news topics or interests, such as technology, sports or food. Users can choose to see content from up to 10 different sections at a time from among 20 total choices.
In each section, the top half of the screen is devoted to a "centerpiece" area that highlights a handful of stories, cycling through pictures related to each one. In the bottom half of the screen, users will find numerous headline cards representing individual stories. Users can either select a particular story to read by tapping on it or scan through the cards by swiping left or right.
If you're primary exposure to Facebook is viewing your friends' status updates, you might be surprised at just how much real news you can find on the site. Paper does an excellent job of highlighting that content.
Although you'll find many stories from major news sources in Paper, you'll also find content from less prominent ones. Michael Reckhow, Paper's product manager, said the app was meant to highlight not only major publishers, but lesser-known artists and content producers. The stories you'll find in each section have all been posted somewhere on Facebook and selected by a combination of human editors and algorithms.
Facebook designed Paper to be a much more immersive experience than Facebook's website or its primary mobile application. Unlike those venues, Paper has no "chrome," which is the borders around an application that typically include buttons, search boxes and other interface elements.
As a result, Paper is able to use the phone's entire screen to display pictures, videos and stories. The effect is often quite beautiful and makes the main Facebook app look clunky and outdated by comparison.
Because Paper has few buttons, users have to rely on gestures to navigate the app. To zoom in on a story card, users swipe up or reverse pinch. To return to the story card or a section page, users swipe down from near the top of the screen or pinch.
Facebook offers new users hints at how to use these gestures, but they can take some getting used to. The first several times I used the app, I kept going back to a story card from an article page when I actually wanted to just scroll through the article itself.
Although Paper focuses on news and story content, it can be used to do many of the things you might do with the primary Facebook app. The first section in Paper is actually your Facebook news feed. You can view your Facebook alerts inside the app, and you can carry on conversations with your Facebook friends in much the same way that you would in the main app.
You also can view reformatted versions of your friends' Facebook pages, search across the social network for other users and post new status updates.
Despite its capabilities and fresh design, the app is very much a work-in-progress and suffers from some notable limitations. The biggest is that, for now, it's only available for the iPhone and Apple's iPod touch; Facebook isn't offering a Paper app for the iPad nor for any Android devices.
But it has other shortcomings. Ten sections may seem like a lot, especially compared to what you'll find in a real newspaper today, but one of those sections is dedicated to your Facebook news feed, so you really have only nine choices. If you have a broader range of interests than that, you're out of luck -- 10 total sections is the limit of what you can see.
Although users can choose which sections they want in their Paper, they have no control over what news sources or types of stories they view in those sections. In your news feed, you can't choose to see only the most recent posts, as you can on Facebook's website. And unlike Flipboard, a news reading app from a local startup that looks and works similar to Paper, you can't focus sections on stories on particular topics or from individual news sources. Instead, you have to rely entirely on Facebook to decide which stories you'll see.
Unfortunately, for now, Facebook isn't personalizing sections in Paper for each user. Instead, everyone who chooses to see the "technology" section, say, will see the same stories from the same sources.
What's more, Paper is a new way of interacting with Facebook -- not with the wider Web. So you can't use it to see what's happening on Twitter or LinkedIn. And if a particular story hasn't been posted to Facebook, it won't show up in Paper either.
I like the thinking behind Paper and it makes for a great new way to see what's happening on Facebook. But if you're looking for a more personalized news reader, I'd download Flipboard.
Likes: Makes it much easier to discover news and other stories posted on Facebook; fresh, beautiful new design; lack of "chrome" allows for full-screen pictures, posts and videos.
Dislikes: No iPad or Android versions; Facebook isn't personalizing sections or allowing users to customize them; users can subscribe to only 10 of 20 available sections; can't be used to view Twitter posts or stories not posted to Facebook; can take a while to master the navigation gestures.