The Half-Life of Social Content: Why Facebook’s Paper is about more than unbundling

Yesterday, Facebook announced Paper, the first creation from Facebook Labs. Almost immediately, numerous pundits opined on Twitter that this announcement signals an acceleration of the unbundling of Facebook, as it makes a land grab for as many spots on your coveted home screen as possible and prevents itself from getting disrupted by competitors’ eating away at its various features.

I certainly can’t argue with these theories — and frankly, I agree with them. However, I believe that Paper and Facebook’s recently launched Trending Topics go hand-in-hand. There’s no question that Facebook dominates the social landscape, but for the most part, the content on the platform doesn’t require being seen immediately for a user to derive value. And this situation was perfectly fine when Facebook wasn’t a “mobile company,” but that isn’t the case anymore with nearly 1 billion monthly active mobile users and 53% of its revenue coming on mobile last quarter. 

And so, enter Twitter and Snapchat, Facebook’s two biggest competitors in the mobile / social landscape (ignoring the litany of pure messenger apps, which is another post entirely). Not only do Twitter and Snapchat have large, engaged, inherently mobile user bases, but they also have something that Facebook doesn’t — an abundance of time-sensitive content, which creates a sense of urgency.

The half-life of a significant number of Tweets is very short. That is, they lose their value very quickly because they likely relate to some kind of live or breaking event, they’re part of a real-time conversation that you’d like to participate in, or users simply want to be “in the know.” In fact, people are compulsively refreshing their feeds so much that Twitter has begun to monetize that behavior

Meanwhile, the half-life of a Snap is similarly short. However, this is the case for a different reason. As Evan Spiegel so eloquently outlined in a recent keynote, Snapchat allows users to “live and communicate at the same time.” The content shared using Snapchat is about the moment in which the sender is living, as she gives friends a glimpse into her world. Viewing that Snap well after it was initially sent often seems fruitless, as the content feels stale and borderline irrelevant (the exception to this being Snapchat Stories). In fact, this desire to view Snaps as soon as possible has led me to have push notifications on for Snapchat — the only app, aside from Sunrise, that receives such treatment. And I know I’m not the only one of my friends who gives Snapchat this level of permission. 

When people are obsessively looking at their phones as much as 150 times per day, they are frequently doing so because the content they’re consuming this level of maniacal checking. So what is Facebook to do, as they don’t want to cede any users’ attention to these mobile rivals?

With a significant portion of Facebook’s content being evergreen or having a much longer half-life than that of Twitter or Snapchat, the social giant must do something to capture this phone-checking fanaticism. So, enter Trending Topics (now on the web but almost guaranteed to make it to mobile after they were there during test runs in August), a rip-off of Twitter’s feature, which gives Facebook real-time relevance immediately. Then there’s Paper, a separate app, which positions the content to be time-sensitive, particularly as they funnel in news items that aren’t coming from your friends. I don’t know about you, but Trending Topics also sound like a perfect addition to Paper once they’ve worked out any initial kinks in the app.

So yes, Zuck mentioned on the earnings call to expect more standalone apps, and the theories thrown out on Twitter yesterday about this strategy totally make sense. But don’t underestimate how Facebook’s Trending Topics and Paper dramatically reduce the half-life of their content, as they seek to create a sense of urgency among users in the same way that Twitter and Snapchat have done.