Facebook Paper was a strange thing. After its release early last year, the extravagant news-reading smartphone app that unbundled the News Feed from the rest of Facebook quickly faded from view. But now it’s paying dividends—at least for Facebook.
On Wednesday, the company rolled out what it calls Instant Articles: stories from big-name news outlets that appear within Facebook’s iPhone app in their entirety rather than simply as a link to elsewhere on the web. In order words, you needn’t leave Facebook’s app in order to read the latest from The New York Times, The Atlantic, or The Guardian. The arrangement was long rumored, and it carries a fair share of controversy, with many worrying it will erode the power of publishers to control their content. But it makes good sense for Facebook. And, it turns out, the team behind the look and feel of Instant Articles was also the team behind Paper.
The upshot: Paper, which does not have ads, is feeding a new source of revenue for Facebook.
This was immediately obvious on Tuesday night, when the new-age media outlet Buzzfeed revealed that it was participating in the program, showing off one of its own “instant articles.” The mini-demo looked a lot like Paper, a distinctive—and impressive—piece of design and software engineering.
Indeed, Techcrunch reported that Michael Reckhow and Mike Matas, the project manager and lead designer behind Paper, helped oversee the creation of Instant Articles. “We’ve brought a bunch of the learnings [from Paper] into this product,” Reckhow told Techcrunch, including the way images and fonts are handled on these articles. More specifically, Paper engineer Ben Cunningham revealed on Twitter Instant Articles make use of a tool called AsyncDisplayKit that’s responsible for making Paper’s complex user interface so quick and responsive by tapping into the iPhone’s multi-core processors. Speed, after all, is one of the main aims meant to show that Instant Articles are preferable to reading in a web browser.
The upshot: Paper, which does not have ads, is feeding a new source of revenue for Facebook. When media outlets opt to show Facebook ads alongside their stories instead of their own, the company takes a 30 percent cut. And so a free app with no obvious way to make money for Facebook is revealed as the test bed for another way to generate ad dollars.
The Facebook Way
The Paper connection is a side note to the launch of Instant Articles, which could have sweeping repercussions for the online media industry in general. But the origin story offers a useful reminder of how Facebook operates—and how it has always operated. The technology comes first, and the purpose—including the revenue—often comes later. In this way, Facebook operates like so many Internet, except that unlike so many of its Silicon Valley competitors, Facebook actually finds its way to the money-making part of the process.
Matas and a small group of other designers and engineers dreamed up Paper after Facebook acquired his previous company, the digital book maker Push Pop. As Paper team member and ex-Apple engineer Scott Goodson told us last year, their ambition extended beyond a standalone news reading app. “The idea was to revisit Facebook as an experience on mobile devices—effectively from the ground up,” he said.
Because Paper was an app entirely separate from “the big blue Facebook app”—and because it didn’t have the immediate utility of a standalone app like Facebook Messenger—it didn’t capture a wide audience. But it was an enormous step forward in terms of design and engineering. This was true not only in how it looked and how quickly it operated, but in the dynamic way it let you explore photos. From the beginning, it was clear that the app would serve as a model for other apps. And it has, including how news is going to start to look in the big blue Facebook app. It isn’t far from its original goal.
Paper was the first app built under the aegis of what the company calls Facebook Creative Labs. This isn’t a physical lab. It’s not even a distinct team of people. It’s really just an idea. The aim is to explore new things that may or may not work. Paper didn’t work, at least in terms of a wider audience. Instant Articles may or may not work. But it’s a nice metaphor for the Facebook way.
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