Facebook Paper and the problem of manufactured nostalgia


Facebook surprised its users last week with the launch of a new app, Paper, which is meant to help streamline mobile Facebook browsing. Even more surprised were the people behind Paper — the original Paper. The one that Apple named its iPad App of the Year in 2012, and that millions of people use already.

“We reached out to Facebook about the confusion their app was creating, and they apologized for not contacting us sooner,” the CEO of Paper’s parent company, FiftyThree, wrote on the company’s blog. “But an earnest apology should come with a remedy … Facebook should stop using our brand name.”

There are many issues wrapped up in this  – trademark and infringement issues chief among them. (According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, FiftyThree only filed for the rights to the name “Paper” on Jan. 30, the same day Facebook’s app came out.) But it also prompts another question: Why would two independent tech companies want such analog and nondescript names for their products? And what’s up with the faux-nostalgia of tech names, in general?

FiftyThree is a perfect example of this: Their other products include “Pencil” and “Book.” (They own the rights to the word “Pencil” as a brand name — but not, thank God, in general usage.) Apple’s Newsstand hearkens back to some little-remembered time when people used to buy printed reading materials off actual shelves. Several apps play off the word Polaroid — a camera that, thanks in part to the increasing quality and availability of mobile phones, no longer exists.

Even some of our generic terms for online actions — “text” and “post,” for instance — refer back to analog items, printed words and mailed letters, that are increasingly going the way of Myspace.

Often, this type of metaphor make sense: excerpting a string of text from one page and plunking it on another is pretty analogous to physically cutting and pasting a paper. Apple’s Newsstand — like the newsstands of yore! — is a depository of books, magazines and newspapers. So using this type of retro language actually sends a pretty clear signal of what the product is and does.

But Paper is very different — it’s a term so generic as to communicate nothing, besides some vague feels about the romance and nostalgia of print. That turns up in Facebook’s promo video for the app, too: someone writes a letter by hand, takes pictures with a film camera, taps away at a typewriter. Facebook clearly understands, as does FiftyThree and dozens of other tech companies, that users feel some sort of exhaustion and anxiety about the very products they sell — and the company is using that, impossibly, to sell more products. Here’s the very articulate Christopher Butler, writing at his personal blog:

The greatest irony is that Paper is selling a dream from which you will wake the moment you start using it. All of those beautiful analog moments portray things Facebook wants you to do in Paper. And for crying out loud, there is no paper in Paper. The name is a blatant mind trick. But is it a trick that works? …

My sense is that the person Facebook has in mind for Paper is the same person who reluctantly maintains her Facebook account, already bored with social media, skeptical of the stacks behind it, and yet compelled to stay out of some sense of obligatory 21st century engagement protocol … She wants a life outside of Facebook; Facebook sells her that dream inside Facebook.

That’s a fascinating insight, and one hardly restricted to Facebook itself. In some ways it also applies to the original Paper, which lets users draw on their tablets as if they were sketchbooks. “We believe our best ideas emerge when we use pencils and papers,” claims an app designed to help people forsake both tools.

The clear takeaway here: marketing this manufactured faux-nostalgia in the tech world is dumb, and we’d be better off if everyone stopped doing it. The other issues we’ll leave to FiftyThree’s lawyer.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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