News Processing on the iPad with Flipboard

There is too much goddamn information in this world – but what can we do about it?

First off, we could ignore it.  Take up reading  Sci-Fi novels or watching reality TV and just tune out the world.  Well, that doesn’t work for me.  I’m a little like that robot in Short Circuit, Johnny 5, who craves more input.  Johnny 5 can read an encyclopedia in a matter of minutes and begs for more, but I can’t.  I don’t want to be like God and know about every dang sparrow that falls from a tree, but I do want a rough idea of what’s going on around this old reality each day.

What I crave is a good steady flow of knowledge about this world and the cosmos.  I like learning new things, but I also need time to ponder fresh data and digest it.  Like most people I want to be up on current events, and not too out of touch with popular culture.  I’m not quite ready for the youngsters to be laughing at me for not knowing the current crop of glitterati of the moment, although I really don’t care, either about being laughed at or who is currently grabbing their 15 minutes of fame.

The trouble is we live in world overflowing with information.  If facts were water droplets there would be no land on this planet.

Keeping up with the news used to mean reading the newspaper or maybe a couple of magazines. Then came television which really made being nosey addictive.  Now with the world wide web we have access to countless newspapers, magazines, television stations, web sites, blogs all coming to us at once.  It’s a wise man who knows what he doesn’t want to know.

For some people getting their daily dose of reality is as simple as watching the NBC Nightly News 30 minutes a day.  But this is baby food news, predigested bites served from little jars and spoon fed to those who are still in the crawling stage of exploring reality.  The next step up for toddlers is the PBS NewsHour.  But then we run into the issue of facts per hour barrier.  How many people really want to spend more than a hour a day getting the news when most of it is repetitive and overly verbose.

What if you could read reports, study graphs and photos and see video clips at your own pace – tailored just your informational curiosity?  That’s what I’m trying to do with my iPad

A tablet computer can nicely format text for reading, show video clips in bright clarity, and display photos that look better than a slick magazine with the extra feature that you can zoom in on them for close study.  It’s outdoes the newspaper, magazine and competes well against the television and the web.

The trick is to get just the right words, videos and photos to view on the tablet.  And it’s a very hard trick.

Enter Flipboard for the iPad.  It does several things, but not perfectly – yet.

  • RSS feed reader
  • Twitter client
  • Facebook client
  • Digests many popular magazines, newspapers and websites

I already like taking in Facebook and Twitter content better on the iPad and Flipboard because Flipboard formats this web content to look like a elegantly laid out magazine.  It’s far more eye catching, but then Facebook is a homely looking website, so it’s not that hard to beat.

It’s also nicer to read RSS content on Flipboard than Google Reader, although there are some big limitations.  RSS feeds come through in two styles.  Some sites send the whole page, and others send just a teaser and a link back to the original web page.  They want you to come look at their ads.  Falling out of Flipboard into its browser mode is unpleasant.  I don’t like reading web pages on the tablet even with the magic of spreading and pinching pages to make them readable.  If I’m going to read the web I’d rather be sitting at my 22” desktop screen. 

However, many websites do send the full pages in their feeds and these look wonderful on the iPad because Flipboard makes their content look like it was published in an issue of National Geographic.

To make up for this limitation of RSS feeds Flipboard has contracted with publishers like Condé Nast to stream their content into Flipboard’s beautiful formatting.  These do come with original ads or even extra ads, but they look like they do in magazines, and not like web pages.  However, these pages are handled different from the RSS content.  Instead of scrolling up to read a long article, they are formatted into pages that you have to flip.  Here’s what Flipboard looks like:

After configuring Flipboard with my accounts at Facebook, Twitter and Google Reader I opened Flipboard and started flipping.  Fantastic first impression, and then I noticed, gee, there’s a lot of damn pages to read here.  Now that’s the essential key to using Flipboard, cutting down your input.

I’m leaving Facebook as it is, but I’m thinking of cutting out a lot of “friends.”  On Twitter, which was already minimally used, I cut out very active feeds.  Then I went to Google Reader and deleted RSS subscriptions to any feed that used the teaser method of providing content.  I only want complete articles sent to me.  I also deleted feeds that sent articles by the hundreds.

What I want is my own personalized digital magazine that I can flip through each day and keep up with what I’m interested in.  It’s going to take awhile to customize Flipboard to get things just the way I like things.  It will  take a few more revisions of the program too.

Flipboard opens on the Favorites section.  The first page has 9 photo squares that each equal a content source.  With the More feature you can add 12 more squares on the next page, each a new content source.

Through the More feature – content from professional publishers like Time, Wired, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Salon, Huffington Post, Elle, Rolling Stone, etc. can be added to the Favorites squares.  Flipboard can expand your magazine to cover endless varieties of news.  This canned list of content that Flipboard has arranged with publishers is ever growing.  They sort this content by twelve categories but that will probably expand too.   You can use these many sources to build new Favorites sections. These pages look like actual magazine pages with ads, and they might be direct copies from printed pages, or facsimiles.

What Flipboard is doing is trying to be the best RSS feed reader possible, but it’s going beyond the RSS feed with contractual agreements with magazines, newspapers and television shows to provide custom Flipboard feeds not based on the RSS standard.

Now this is all wonderful, and it does reduce the hurricane of data from the Internet into merely a fire hose of magazine pages, but it’s still too much.

What’s needed is artificial intelligence to monitor my reading tastes and further customize the content flow to just stuff I want to read.  I want Flipboard to be much more than what it is.  Which brings me to Instapaper – a web service that allows web readers to save content to read later.  Flipboard can be configured so if you tap an icon at the bottom of the page and select Read Later the article is saved at Instapaper so you can read it later.  But you have to read it at Instapaper web or quit Flipboard on the iPad and launch the Instapaper app.  What would be neat is if Flipboard saved the read later articles in it’s own app – so one of my Favorites squares would be Read Later.  And of course, Flipboard would need to create a browser add-on to mark pages like Instapaper.

Now, I have figured out how create a workaround for this.  I can just Tweet everything I see on the web that I want to read later.  But this isn’t exactly what I want.  What I want is for a Flipboard AI to know what I want to read and have it ready like the President’s assistants with his morning briefing of the news.

The whole key to all of this is reducing the flow of things to read.  Flipboard can’t do this – yet.  Maybe not ever.  It might take another app invention to do what I want.  What might be needed is a social network of very like minded readers.  Digg, Reddit and StubleUpon are much too broad.  Essentially I want a 30 minute briefing on reality each day, with the option to read one long article that might take 15-30 minutes more reading time if I have it.  I don’t want to spend 30 minutes a day trying to find the news that I want.

It might be possible to hook me up with the right 100 people who like to read the same exact content as I  do.  Then each of us would have to spend 5-10 minutes a day looking at Flipboard or the web and mark the best articles for our daily custom reading, which would be a cross tabulated to find the most popular for all of us to read.

Another way would be to allow readers to list specific topics they are interested in and the amount of words they want on these topics.  For example, I might say I want Cosmology articles that run from 500-1,500 words.  Anything shorter or longer is excluded.

Right now the iPad is another big time waster like TV and the web.  I know a lot of people who like to watch their TV shows and movies on their iPad.  The iPod made music listening very private, now tablet computers are making TV watching very private.  Apps like Flipboard could also manage my TV shows too – that’s another issue.

JWH – 8/16/11

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