Flipboard points to the future of reading

Saturday, July 24, 2010

If you have an iPad, you should install Flipboard right now. If you don't, bear with me because I'm going to attempt to make a point about reading online in general, whether you have an iPad or not.

As you see from the video, Flipboard is an app that aggregates content from the links your friends on Twitter and Facebook are sharing, plus packages of pre-selected topics like books, technology, politics, etc. It then assembles these pages into a beautiful magazine-like format that takes advantage of the iPad form factor perfectly. I can already tell that once some of the rough edges are smoothed out, this will be my app of first choice for reading content from the web.

I'm not writing this so much to tout Flipboard (although it's a slick app) as I am to point out that this is the direction online content is moving. For all the attention given to the iPad as an e-book reader, I've never seen that as its sweet spot. Its arrival is more of a threat to magazines than it is printed books, because apps like Flipboard and the wonderful Instapaper let you assemble your own personalized magazine from disparate sources and recommendations.

Of course, you could always approximate this experience with a browser, an RSS reader, or a set of favorite links that you visit on a regular basis. The problem with this approach is that it's a lot of work to browse all those sites, click through all those news items, and follow all those links emailed from your friends. Eventually most people settle on one or two sites and leave it at that. That's fine, but it limits your experience online. The addition of Facebook and Twitter to a media diet doesn't really help matters either. It's a lot of work to check out everything your friends share there too if you're limited the traditional method of clicking through links in a browser.

The trick that Flipboard and Instapaper pull off is to give you an easy way to funnel all those links from all those sources into one pile for reading later, and most importantly, into a streamlined format. That sounds like I'm just being lazy, but to me the old way is like having to stand in front of a magazine rack every day and flip through every issue to find the good stuff. It's quaint and relaxing maybe, but not very efficient. Tools like this are like being handed one magazine with all the good stuff packaged together. And because it's already filtered by the friends, acquaintances, and news sources that I trust online, it's going to have a better signal-to-noise ratio, as the web geeks like to say. More wheat, less chaff, and likely to have a wider variety than I would have picked out on my own.

I don't know that the answer is Flipboard. Actually, the company has struggled with demand and already faces questions about whether what it's doing is legal or not. But this kind of aggregation, based on the recommendations of a social circle, is better than the kind practiced by self-interested aggregators like Huffington Post, with its shady linking practices and penchant for posting scandalous celeb gossip to drive traffic. But for publishers of any type of content on the web--this site included--the focus should be on whipping your articles and stories and posts into formats that are likely to be shared and linked by people who care, rather than merely reproducing a digital version of a legacy print format, as so many mainstream magazines are trying to do with tools like Zinio. "Social news" is a gimmicky term, but it's a very good thing for readers.