The Flipboard Dilemma: Who Owns User Experience?

Flipboard burst on the scene this week like a Rodriguez movie trailer, or a new diet drug, and everyone rushed to download (following Scoble’s recommendation). Now that the dust has settled, and the controversy about Flipboard being unready to handle the surge of signups has started to abate, some larger issues are starting to arise from Flipboard’s modus vivendi:

Joel Johnson, Is Flipboard Legal?
Social news app Flipboard was yesterday’s hot new app, despite—or perhaps because of—technical problems that prevented some features from working. But there might be a bigger snag: Is Flipboard scraping content it doesn’t have the rights to?
Flipboard, the new iPad app that renders links from your Twitter feed and favorite sites in a beautiful, magazine-style layout, has a problem: it scrapes websites directly rather than using public RSS feeds, opening it to claims of copyright infringement.
Unlike some similar news apps like Pulse, Flipboard appears to eschew the older syndication standby RSS to instead grab URLs from Twitter and Facebook feeds. While news sources that maintain their own automatic Twitter feeds tend to link the same stories as they do in their RSS feeds, there’s one critical difference: RSS also allows content to be included in the feed, whereas Twitter provides only the URLs that link back to the full website. (Unless, of course, the site only writes 140 character news stories.)
Back in the ancient days of the mid-aughts, there was a healthy debate online about whether or not news outlets should provide full content feeds or simply headlines and excerpts. Rather than rehash that debate—one that’s still ongoing—just remember this: whether a company chose to publish “full feeds” or excerpts, the choice remained theirs.

The fact that publishers have some explicit means of controlling the use of their published materials through RSS (as well as devices like the robot.txt files used to control indexing by search engine robots) has not actually always provided strong enough controls for publishers. Said differently, publisher have still blocked or threatened services like Pulse and Flipboard even when they are only serving up what has been published in their RSS feeds. Murdoch has made the case that search engines ‘bots don’t have the right to index his sites even when robot.txt files indicate that those sites are open for indexing.

This suggests the need for some other mechanism to define what sort of reuse or aggregation rights that publishers care to allow. Creative Commons suggests an example, but it is likely to be considered too coarsely grained, and it doesn’t delve deeply enough into the nuts and bolts of actual reuse.

The rise of tools like Flipboard may represent a new day. Tools that intentionally sidestep RSS, and instead reach through the URL and spider the websites themselves, like search engines do. Search engines build indexes and return snippets clipped from the myriad sites they have visited based on the search queries users enter. But Flipboard is tapping into our social networks — like those that I follow on Twitter — by reaching through the URLs in the Twitter stream, and aggregating what they point to, and rendering it in a magazine-like UX.

But the presentation in Flipboard poses some real business problems. Where’s the ads? Publishers make their money on ads (and pay walls), and so they are going to start to howl if people are viewing their stories with all the ads parsed out.

Perhaps even more contentious will be the response of Facebook and other social services like Twitter. To the extent that Flipboard replaces their UX, they may lose revenue as well. Twitter recently has moved into the realm of building its own clients and does so with the explicit goal of making ad revenue. These social network giants could block access to Flipboard and other tools of this sort, simply because they will resist being treated as a dumb pipe of social messages. Facebook will certainly move aggressively if Flipboard ‘dumbs down’ what Facebook does for users, treating it just as a messaging bus with URLs, pictures, and social gestures embedded in it.

It is relatively simple to extrapolate to a near future in which Flipboard, or some other entrant with similar aspirations, has ginned up a superior user experience, one that involves its own layers of sociality. Imagine that Flipboard can offer its users greater benefits by communicating directly through Flipboard, and not through underlying services like Twitter or Facebook — for example, being able to share Tumblr like reblog capabilities, or some other dimension of sociality that naturally falls out of the iPad experience.

I am certain that Twitter and Facebook would consider this course of events — however hypothetical — with some alarm.I believe that these companies must retain control of their user experience, and they must resist being commoditized by a richer layer of sociality superimposed above their offerings.

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