Whither News Feed?

Yesterday was February 3rd. To great fanfare, Facebook launched Paper, a new way to experience the news feed on your iPhone. With a fancy website, a press blitz, and relatively rare interviews with Facebook designers & engineers, the launch is calculated to drive adoption of the new app. A fundamental redesign of the core way many users experience Facebook, Paper tries to drive mobile use by the youngest and most desired users. It's just the latest move in a very long line of attempts for Facebook to allow users to comprehend the massive amounts of data that stream in every second. And it's not the first time this same launch has happened. 

 Graph Search shown by somebody with better musical taste than I have

Graph Search shown by somebody with better musical taste than I have

Nearly a year ago, Facebook held a pair of press events at its headquarters. With great fanfare, Facebook launched a pair of redesigns of core products. At the first press event, Facebook announced a search engine with which to beat back Google, one that drew on the volumes of information that it had stored on both you and the people you were looking for. Graph Search was going to be a revolution in the way people used Facebook - it would help people discover something new, rather than just find people they'd already befriended. It quickly entered a public beta, rolling out to people who asked for it, but not before it had been superseded.

 Facebook's demo photo of News Feed. Sorry for the generic screenshot, I still can't have this.

Facebook's demo photo of News Feed. Sorry for the generic screenshot, I still can't have this.

Less than three months after the launch of Graph Search, Facebook held yet another press conference at Menlo Park, to announce an even bigger redesign. The most controversial acts Facebook has ever taken have not been privacy slips or overuse of personal information, but redesigns of the home page seen by the hundreds of millions of users whenever they log in. Last redesigned in 2010, the News Feed is arguably the center of Facebook. In March of last year, they announced they were starting over with their home page. A massive revamp, it would leave more space for your content (and presumably ads) while also making many of the long-buried Facebook features obvious and accessible. Like Graph Search, News Feed (the only identifying name Facebook ever gave the impending redesign) also quickly became available in a private beta.

With updates in May and June of 2013, Facebook brought the redesigned News Feed to mobile devices, unifying the interface between iOS and Android applications (Blackberry followed in August). Though they would later diverge in appearance, the focus on content remained the same. The end goal became apparent when Facebook began inserting targeted advertising into these unified designs. Graph Search still has not come to mobile in any major capacity, with sparse reports just this week of users being invited to try it on mobile devices running iOS. 

Both features announced last march seem to have disappeared. They remain in private beta, but the roll-out seems to have paused. Facebook doesn't make the number of graph search users public, but an informal survey of my friends shows that only a small number have opted-in. News Feed remains even rarer. Facebook, on their promotional site, informs everyone who is logged how many friends use the new appearance. Just 3% of my friends have been gifted this new look, and that number has not incremented in months. Lest you think that Facebook has run out of beta testers, I (and my roommates) have yet to receive an invitation.

This all raises questions about the future of Paper. Will it be rolled out to everyone as the new way to use Facebook? Will it remain, like News Feed, a rare product - only used by those most devoted (or is that addicted?) to Facebook? Or will it, like Poke (an app Facebook released in December 2012 and promptly abandoned) wither and die - used by just a very few holdouts? It's difficult to tell which type of initiative Paper will be, but it definitely has the potential to renew interest in Facebook's mobile apps.