The social information ideal?

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In a carefully choreographed launch, a new iPad ‘social magazine’ app called FlipBoard was released. I say it was choreographed because there were several key ‘influencers’ who released reviews simultaneously with gushing testimonies (here’s one). As it was free, I downloaded it to see what the hype was all about.

FlipBoard, it seems to me, highlights the potential but also possibly some fundamental tensions in how we are distributing content. Let me first describe it. Basically, you subscribe to sections (which might also be called ‘channels’). One example of a channel is your Facebook feed. And what you get is not a list of updates and links but a magazine layout of them including downloading photos and linked to articles and media. The first impression is that this makes reading that stuff far more pleasant. In addition, the interface is as slick as they come and very iPad friendly. The point here is that your articles are those chosen by your friends or some other group. In other words, each section is not original content but a different filter. I’ve written about filters before but FlipBoard really is the best example of formalising the concept into something that might be usable.

It is worth reflecting on the origins of ‘sections.’ One set of sections are those provided by FlipBoard themselves but others include things like The Onion‘s feed or various twitter feeds or lists. So if I wanted to launch a ‘Gans on Economics’ section, I would go to twitter and form a list and you could, if you wanted to, subscribe to it in FlipBoard and have a jolly old time reading the content. What this potentially means is that everyone can become a publisher or aggregator without the pain of worrying about page layouts. For example, I have created a new twitter feed for posts from this blog (http://twitter.com/coreecon). If search for that in FlipBoard you can add a section and (well, after a day or so) you can read this blog like a magazine.

So this is what is potentially great about FlipBoard — it means everyone is a publisher/aggregator — and it achieves this in a very clean way. Everyone can be the Huffington Post or Google News.

The tension, as always, comes from the content and the reward for content providers. If everyone reads content this way, how do they earn any money. FlipBoard as ‘solved’ this by just providing a preview of most content. If you want to read the whole article, you are redirected to the original website. I can tell you that it is quite a shock coming from the relative fluidity of FlipBoard and its nice Helvetica layout into something else with a different font size and layout and ads and mess. Makes you not want to read further; surely the opposite of what we want. I have suggested before that layout is important when you really want to read something as opposed to browse it. FlipBoard gets the browsing right but then to placate content providers leaves us with a crappy reading format. Nothing like the clean reading format that is Instapaper or Safari’s reader function. What is more FlipBoard doesn’t give you the option as many feed readers do of sending an article to Instapaper to read later. To maintain harmony, they have crimped the overall experience.

To make this work we need another way of deal with content providers. The easiest would be for FlipBoard to do the ad placement and reward the providers directly. If we were in a more sophisticated environment, there would be a technology that allowed content providers to specify the ads that were placed when content was lifted and FlipBoard need have no role at all. For the moment, FlipBoard have shot themselves in the foot over this.

Now, I could go further on other matters regarding how we are dealing with information overload but I will leave that for another time.

[Update: interesting discussion of the relation between all of this and copyright law.]

2 Responses to "The social information ideal?"
  1. Really nice assessment of the impact apps like this could have on media owners Josh. However I think this issue has existed for a long time already with RSS feeds. We’ve found ways to work around it, but if this filtering and re-packaging takes off in a more mainstream way than RSS has, big questions will begin to be asked about how to survive if you’re a content producer.
     
    I also noticed the PR flurry around this app, and thought I’d chip in with a blog post. However I took a slightly different angle, my issue is the fact that I don’t see how this sort of filtering is providing me a better, broader experience of online content. Admittedly it’s a lot nicer looking in it’s Helvetica glory, but unless you happen to have amazingly interesting friends, I’m not sure this form of filtering is going to be that valuable.

  2. Though Flipboard is iPad only, it looks very similar to the cross-platform paper.li website. For example, here is how all the links post by Twitter users on Latika Bourke’s “journalists” list is diplayed: http://paper.li/latikambourke/journalists
    Pretty useful. If it updated more than once a day it’d absolutely be my preferred way of consuming this content.
     
    (N.B. I have no affiliation with Latika or Fairfax).

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