Providing relevant social news remains a tantalizing but elusive goal for developers. There are many services that aggregate shared news items from across the Internet and highlight the most-discussed stories of the day. But popular news and relevant news are not the same thing. News addicts such as myself scour Twitter, Facebook, and Google Reader, relying on our self-selected online communities to provide relevant items, but these services exist in disparate silos. What we need is a service that aggregates the shared items across our many social networks to bring us relevant news as chosen by our friends, not an editorial board or an impersonal popularity algorithm. The social news iPad app Flipboard aims to do just that, and judging from the explosive online response, there’s quite a demand for such a service.
Flipboard touts itself as a “social magazine.” It aggregates top news from a select number of sources, integrates the links and images that your friends are sharing on Twitter and Facebook, and serves it all up in a dynamic, magazine-style interface. In concept, Flipboard is a killer app: iPad applications such as Reeder, iBooks and Instapaper have demonstrated that reading paginated content on a tablet is far superior to the slog of tab-switching and scrolling that we’ve long-endured on computer web browsers. Leveraging aggregated social news and the iPad’s unparalleled online reading experience may be the platform's evolutionary missing link.
Unlike other iPad news apps, Flipboard’s paginated interface is responsive and every design choice feels purposeful and well-considered, not loaded down with unnecessary aesthetic cruft. News stories read great, using typography and formatting inspired by Arc90’s fantastic Readability bookmarklet. Photo blogs such as The Big Picture and Shorpy are also well-represented. These sites have always suffered from the flat, endless-scrolling reading experience of a traditional browser, so viewing them through Flipboard’s paginated magazine-like interface is revelatory, like an interactive issue of National Geographic. Flipboard is also incredibly fast, which separates it from other, less polished iPad newsreading apps.
I wish I could report on the app’s social functionality first-hand, but the company’s servers have been so backlogged since the Wednesday launch that they’ve temporarily halted Facebook and Twitter connections–I’m currently on a waiting list to receive the social features. As a result, Flipboard currently functions as a beautifully-designed news reader that draws content from a limited number of sources, but it’s real appeal–its ability to aggregate what news items are being shared in your various social networks–is glaringly absent.
Still, there’s much to be excited about. In a interview with peHUB, cofounder Mike McCue stated that the company will aggressively add more social services, including Google Buzz, Flickr and more. I’d like to see Flipboard leverage the social functions of the Google Reader service, pulling in RSS subscriptions and the shared items of your Google contacts, as well as items from Google’s most-shared feed. A Tumblr connection should also be a priority: the blogging platform is the hot emerging social service thanks to its reblogging feature, but its native social interface–the dashboard–could use some of Flipboard’s visual polish. Integrate the social news elements of Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Google Reader to create an aggregate social news experience, and Flipboard may truly be the next evolutionary step in social news.
Flipboard also faces some likely battles: Facebook has not looked favorably on apps that present Facebook’s social experience outside of the site itself–their attitude is that Facebook exists to draw content in, not syndicate it out to the wider web. Also, as Gizmodo’s Joel Johnson noted, news organizations may cry foul, since Flipboard scrapes news sites for content instead of pulling content from site RSS feeds. Its a subtle technical distinction that could have large legal implications if newspapers or magazines consider the app’s content scraping to be theft.
Hopefully that won’t happen. The furor around Flipboard, even in its limited infancy, demonstrates the demand for a social news application that offers both 1) a superior reading experience and 2) relevant news curated by our many online communities. Flipboard has already achieved the first–if they can nail the second, and prevail over server issues, Facebook lock-in policies, and regressive old media attitudes, they may have something paradigm-changing on their hands.