02/07/2016 3:47 AM AEST

Facebook Wants Out Of Traditional News

It's back to basics for the social media giant.

Reuters Staff / Reuters
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in Beijing, China.

Facebook wants out of the news business.

The company announced Thursday that it is shuttering Paper, a relatively obscure iOS app that displayed Facebook's News Feed differently, emphasizing media and news articles. The app contained topic pages like "Tech," for instance, and tapping on those sections would display a series of related stories for you to interact with.

By Friday, Paper had already been removed from the App Store, and its official website was scrubbed from the internet.

A promotional image from Facebook's Paper website as it appeared Thursday.

The decision to dump Paper comes immediately after a highly publicized announcement from Facebook this week that it will prioritize posts from your friends above those from "Pages" -- a catch-all term for media outlets and brands that use the social network to connect to their audiences.

If you wonder whether the two might be connected, consider Wired's original review of the Paper app in 2014.

"The most radical aspect of Paper, though, is that it isn’t predicated entirely on your friends," Kyle Vanhemert wrote.

"By expanding the scope and quality of content you can expect to find there, Paper is trying to position itself as a place you’ll go for news and inspiration–and, just as importantly, as the kind of place you’ll want to contribute to yourself," he added.

News at the expense of friends is the last thing Facebook wants now, as we learned from the algorithm shift earlier this week. Yes, the company has closed down plenty of services before -- in Vanity Fair this month, a former employee describes a "crowded graveyard of forgotten Facebook product failures." But Paper's demise is just the latest item in a trend.

The app's death follows a dust up over Facebook's supposed bias against conservative news in its "Trending Topics" module. After that, Facebook met with members of the conservative media and politicians to assuage their ire and overhauled the company's guidelines on how trending news items are selected.

The message couldn’t be more clear: Facebook is in retreat from the notion that it’s a news service.

And even before, the social network altered its News Feed algorithm to prioritize live video content from people and brands, which sent media outlets -- many of which profit from the firehose of traffic Facebook can provide -- into a panic. News that Facebook is paying companies, including The Huffington Post, to create live programs did little to quell fears over the future of the written word -- nor did a blunt statement from Facebook executive Nicola Mendelsohn about the social network being "all video" within five years.

More than a year before Mendelsohn's declaration, the social network enacted an algorithm shift that highlighted personal content, though the language in that update emphasized "balance" between those posts and others. Not so anymore.

The message couldn't be more clear: Facebook is in retreat from the notion that it's a news service, and it wants to cement its reputation as a place where people connect with other people, not brands.

Shailesh Andrade / Reuters
A man reads articles in a newspaper -- not on Facebook -- at the company's office in Mumbai, India.

Perhaps that's because Facebook is losing ground. Not so long ago, if you wanted to post a personal story or photo online, Facebook was the place to do it. Then your mom joined. And your boyfriend's weird aunt. You got a friend request from your high school principal.

It's nice to be connected to everyone, but sometimes you just want to post your keg stand in peace. 

Enter Snapchat, which has swiftly climbed in popularity over the last two years, especially with people between the ages of 18 and 34. The platform offers total control over who you share content with, and that content automatically deletes itself after viewing. It's a stark contrast to Facebook's confusing privacy controls and overall permanence.


While Snapchat rose, Facebook is said to have suffered a significant decline in "personal sharing" on its network -- meaning people like you and me are posting less about our lives. A report on Thursday indicated that much the same thing has happened on Facebook-owned Instagram.

The bottom line: Facebook is doing what it can to stay relevant and exert more control over its more than 1 billion users. Today, that means pivoting away from the fickle news media and doing more to encourage people to talk to one another without branded noise gumming up their feeds.

More personal sharing means more ways to target ads, and it might also mean more incentive for people to get hooked on the platform -- for many, the app is at its best when it's social in more than name only. 

Will the changes ultimately resonate with the millions of people who use Facebook for news? We'll just have to wait and see.