The strange appeal of Flipboard, a social media ‘magazine’ for iPad

Flipboard Contents 'page' - click to view gallery of Flipboard images

Flipboard Contents 'page' - click to view gallery of Flipboard images

The buzz surrounding Flipboard for iPad hit suddenly. One minute I’d never heard of it and then the next my Twitter timeline was drowning in posts about it. I downloaded it just in time… to be blocked by everyone else trying to get in! The next day, Flipboard’s creators announced an invite system where you’d be queue’d to get the OK to connect your Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Even without the social media integration, I immediately saw the appeal of Flipboard via the various news feeds it aggregates. It has the glossy look of a neatly arranged and typeset magazine, only populated on-the-fly with stories and images from the Internet. Flip through the virtual pages just like you would with a paper copy of Wired or Vanity Fair. Some excerpts are short and sweet, others lengthy with a link to the full article. Spontaneous photo essays abound! Tap an image to open a focused view of it, then tap it again and it fills the screen. (Alas, you can’t tap and hold to save favorite images to your local photo album.)

I did get my social media invite a few days later, and suddenly it became much more personal. People I follow everyday get featured pull quotes daily. Gamers I know show off recent play summaries in greater depth than I ever see when browsing my timeline. Articles that were simply shortened links are blown up and instantly readable. My friends’ photos become instant photo essays or one-off illustrations breaking up a sea of article text.

Flipboard turns your Facebook and Twitter into a glossy magazine - click to view gallery of Flipboard images

Flipboard turns your Facebook and Twitter feeds into a glossy magazine - click to view gallery of Flipboard images

As much as I love Flipboard, it’s more of the sort of thing a social media consultant like me uses to unwind after a long day slaving over Twitter timelines, @ replies and Facebook walls (seriously, we never unplug – just ask my wife!) than a tool to be used for everyday work.

Here are some areas I would like to see improved:

  1. The Contents page only has nine slots, two of which are locked for Facebook and Twitter. I would probably fill 20 if I could with additional Twitter lists and news feeds! Scrolling would probably break the magazine metaphor, but it’s not unheard of to have more than one contents page. How about up to three pages for a total of 27 possible categories?
  2. You’re never going to get a comprehensive view of a busy Twitter or Facebook feed with a magazine style client like this, but how about letting us choose which friends we want to see or drill down to view? I recently posted a photo album to Facebook myself but didn’t launch Flipboard for several hours, and by then it was buried under my friends’ posts. I would have loved to see it turned into a photo essay! Likewise, I would like to browse or select sets of Facebook friends for spontaneous views of their recent status updates. And add sites I like that aren’t on the Flipboard team’s radar, or at least suggest them to the team for future inclusion.
  3. Flipboard doesn’t cache content for offline use. Since I didn’t spring for the 3G iPad, this meant I couldn’t show off the app to a friend when I took it to a café that didn’t offer WiFi I could use. Fortunately, I had already snapped some screenshots of Flipboard including the photo essay it had made of her recent gallery of self-portraits. Likewise, I would like to save favorite pages to an offline gallery within Flipboard to browse them again later, much as I might revisit a magazine article or photo layout.

That said, these are minor quibbles with an iPad app that is both free and very good at what it does – presenting social media in an old familiar format but in an interactive manner you’d never get from a paper periodical. If you have an iPad, it deserves a slot on your Home screen.

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