As has been rumored for some time now, Facebook plans Thursday to launch a new iOS app called Paper that uses a newspaper metaphor as a way of aggregating content from the social network, complete with topic-based sections and content selected in part by human editors. For traditional publishers — who already see the giant social platform as a competitor in the relentless ongoing war for digital attention — this is yet another shot across the bow from a company that dwarfs most of them in both size and reach.
As Mike Isaac at Re/code mentioned recently, Facebook has been hiring editors who will help select the content that gets included in the new app. A spokesperson wouldn’t say how many have been hired, just that they are a “small team,” and that they will be looking for content worth highlighting from throughout the network, both from professional sources as well as individuals. Facebook said the new app would be available for download in the U.S. on February 3.
Content chosen by human editors
Some content will be surfaced algorithmically, based on whether it’s being shared a lot or getting a lot of “likes,” but much of it will be chosen by the editors based on their own view of what deserves to be highlighted in the app, and decisions about how the content appears within the app will be made by them. Any public content is eligible to be included in Paper, the spokesperson said, including status updates or photos posted by any user. No further permission is required.
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In some ways, Paper — which comes from a small team inside the company known as Facebook Creative Labs — is the culmination of a vision that founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has had since at least 2009, when he and director of product Chris Cox started talking about the main Facebook news feed as a “personalized newspaper.” The network has made innumerable changes to its algorithms in the service of that vision, including a recent tweak designed to highlight “high quality” sources at the expense of viral sites like Upworthy.
Along the way, Facebook has tried giving its news feed more of a newspaper-type feel by including “frictionless sharing” of content and “social reader” applications such as those launched by the Washington Post and The Guardian, which quickly accumulated tens of millions of readers — only to have their growth short-circuited suddenly when Facebook changed its algorithms yet again.
Entering an already crowded market
In terms of mobile content curation, Paper is entering a fairly crowded market: Flipboard already has more than 100 million users, and it just finished raising another $50 million in financing (of course, Facebook has revenues of $7 billion, so funding isn’t really an issue — and Paper will apparently not have any advertising at all). Then there’s Zite, which is now owned by CNN, as well as smaller social content-recommendation services such as Prismatic.
In fact, Facebook’s new app is just the latest in a series of new digital offerings that take a primarily human-curated approach to content: in just the past week, we’ve seen Trove (originally created by Washington Post Labs) relaunch as a social content-recommendation network, as well as the new Inside app from entrepreneur Jason Calacanis, and an upgraded news-magazine style approach from Flipboard that started rolling out on Wednesday and is powered partly by humans.
Paper also appears to be just one of a number of app experiments the company plans to roll out, according to comments from Zuckerberg during the company’s earnings call on Wednesday. He said that the next few years will see a whole suite of standalone apps aimed at different ways of sharing content — a move that appears to be inspired by the success of Instagram, which Facebook acquired but has allowed to remain independent, as well as the Messenger app.
Of course, not every standalone app that Facebook launches is a success — after all, it tried to get users interested in Poke, an app that was designed to compete with the viral success of Snapchat, but went down in flames. The multimillion-dollar question is whether Paper will be something that people want to spend more time with, or whether it will just feel like a tabloid stapled together from items they’ve already seen in their news feed, or a pale imitation of Flipboard.