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Facebook’s slick new iPhone app

Tuesday was Facebook’s 10th birthday, but the vast social network isn’t asking for much. Just keep posting your photos, videos, lame jokes, and political rants, and Facebook will keep turning your personal information into money — $7.8 billion last year alone.

In fact, it’s Facebook that’s handing out presents. They have built a cool little anniversary website that generates a one-minute video based on all the notes and photos you’ve ever posted — a unique video for each of Facebook’s 1 billion users. Check it out at facebook.com/lookback.

Better still, the company has just released a remarkable iPhone app called Paper that could become your favorite way to go Facebooking. A marvel of efficient design, Paper gives you easy one-handed access to your friends’ latest postings, as well as specialized information channels. Through Paper, you can access the latest headlines, as well as stories about sports, entertainment, the arts — more than a dozen areas of interest.

This isn’t the first time Facebook has tried to keep us inside its big blue garden with an all-encompassing mobile app. Remember Facebook Home? It took over your smartphone’s home screen, and served up endless slideshows of your friends’ latest postings. I’m one of about 16 people who liked Home; Facebook’s other billion or so subscribers either yawned or groaned.

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I’m thinking Paper will do much better. Instead of seizing control of the phone, this app merely captures your attention, with a winsome interface that’s just confusing enough to become addictive once you have mastered it. After a couple of days using it, I felt a vague resentment when I had to access Facebook any other way.

Paper is a free download at Apple Inc.’s iTunes Store. Sadly, there’s no version for phones running Google Inc.’s Android software or Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Phone.

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Paper looks nothing like the standard iPhone Facebook app, which tries to mimic Facebook’s appearance on your desktop computer’s Web browser. Instead, Paper was clearly built for smartphones. It’s so compact and touch-responsive that you can hold the iPhone in your palm and operate all the controls with your thumb.

In a nod to Facebook Home, the upper half of the app runs a slide show of photos posted by your buddies. Tap a photo and it takes over the screen. Of course, you can rotate the phone sideways to view wide pictures in landscape mode. Or keep the screen upright and rock it from side to side. As you twist your wrist, the picture scrolls back and forth; it’s a sweet gimmicky visual effect.

Meanwhile, the lower half of the iPhone’s screen displays the usual stream of messages from people you’ve friended or followed. But instead of scrolling up or down to access them, you sweep a finger from side to side, and postings parade across the bottom of the screen. Swipe up on a particular posting and it fills the screen. If your friend has included a link to a webpage, swipe up again. The app’s built-in browser goes to the page.

No time to read it now? If you’ve got an account with those popular read-it-later services such as Instapaper or Pocket, Paper lets you instantly send them a copy. And of course, you can share the page with other Facebook friends. You can peck out a written response on the phone screen, or use iPhone’s speech recognition feature to make a verbal reply.

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When you’ve finished with your friends, you can look up the latest postings on your favorite specialized topics. By dragging a finger, you can set up a feed of the latest business headlines or technology news. Or you can set up a feed devoted to fashion, cooking, photography, or the doings of movie and television stars.

It’s similar to Flipboard, the wonderful app that lets you assemble your own news magazine by linking to multiple online news sources. But with Paper, Facebook’s own curators decide what matters, and you must take what they give you. This gives the service an imperious, we-know-best quality that gives me the willies. Why not let us create feeds of our own?

Also, the service needs a lot more choices. Where’s the latest video-gaming news, for instance, or a feed devoted solely to politics? And there seems to be no hurry about posting fresh stories. Days after the Super Bowl, Paper still displayed a piece from the day before the game about the epic awesomeness of Peyton Manning.

Still, the software developers at Facebook got the big things right, and they have built an app that informs and delights. Facebook was already quite good, but it’s even better on Paper.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.