This could get long.

I’m going to come out and say up front that as a user, I’m a slavish lovesick fool for Flipboard. It’s become my most-used iPad application, and my go-to interface for social media. As a user, it’s completely hooked me. If you could read the Tumblr dashboard on it, it’d be the only way I read the social web.

Information hierarchy and editorial mix.

I don’t know how it works, but the design does seem to allow for size and scale cues to let the reader know what is and isn’t important. These design cues matter, even if they’re a vestigial remnant of the technology of paper. There are historical cultural forces at play here, and we ignore them at our peril. Big means “important”, small means “you can skip this if you want”. This is a culturally-accepted mode of communicating.

Flipboard gets this right, at least for me, a lot of the time. More than I’d expect, in fact. I suspect that Facebook and Twitter ‘likes’ play into the determination of importance, (and therefore scale) in the interface. If I’m right, this is smart because it brings taste and serendipity into the editorial/curatorial mix. 

I tend to dislike the practise of getting one’s news and information from narrow sources. Recommendation engines and customised newsfeeds terrify me, because they operate under the (entirely wrong) assumption that what people want to know about is what they need to know about. Flipboard’s clever model means that I’m getting my news from other people who are telling me things they’re interested in. I like my friends, and they tend to have interests that diverge from mine. Their links tend to send me to things I never knew I needed to know about.

That’s traditionally been the role of the Editor. If it can be done this well by an algorithm, there’s soon going to be a lot fewer jobs for editors, or their remits are going to become more narrow.

Touch

As the items in our lives tend toward physical perfection, we yearn for a connection to the real. As information moves from paper to screen, we’re in a sense putting information into a sensory deprivation tank. I have memories about different newspapers based that are triggered by their smell, and the texture of their pages, and the way they responded to being folded in a certain way. These cues are all gone. In their place, we at least now have touch. Flipboard’s intuitive interface responds to touch in such a way that the information ‘feels’ real. I can turn a page (a sop to paper, but it’s how we think about the act of switching between buckets of information), I can interact with stories and images, I can exert some quasi physical mastery of the flow and pace of information. This matters, and Flipboard is the first time I’ve seen it done right.

Fair Use/Control

I am not the first person to say this by any stretch, but as someone who has an interest in the commercial side of information I have serious qualms about Flipboard’s cavalier appropriation of other people’s work. I’m not going to get into a complex debate about Fair Use, because the concept is interpreted differently even within juridictions, my understanding of the law is limited to my jurisdiction.

What I will say is that even if Flipboard’s scraping and recontextualising of other people’s content were to be considered Fair Use, it’s a very generous interpretation, and one that probably isn’t within the spirit of the law. It’s one thing to photocopy one article out of a newspaper but it’s something else entirely to make a book of photocopied clippings and on-sell it to the marketplace. Which is exactly what Flipboard does.

For example, if you were to share a link to this article via Twitter, and it then appeared on someone’s Flipboard as a result, then my work (and I use the term lightly here) would be taken from my blog, put into another format, and thrown into the service of what is after all a commercial venture. My question as a writer would be simple – where’s my cheque? The answer is that it’s never coming.

(By the way, if you do want to share this on Twitter or anywhere else, I’m totally cool with it, that whine was just to illustrate a point.)

The long and short of it is that Flipboard doesn’t ask if you want to be on there. That’s disrespectful. And I have no doubt, playing with fire in a legal sense.

So there you have it.

The app is great. The interaction model is well considered. The information architecture is handled in a very very clever manner. But the content side of it seems  fraught with problems legal, economic, and moral. I’m not close enough to it to get a read on what’s going to happen, but I’ve been around long enough to know there will be a fight about this stuff and it will not be pretty.

Edit: I’m not suggesting the Flipboard people haven’t considered considered all of these issues. For all I know they have them covered. I’m simply sharing my concerns.

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