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Flipboard CEO's new media mission: 'crawl the social networks'

In a conference room at The Times last week, Mike McCue, the chief executive of Flipboard, got an email on his iPhone. It was Apple, telling him that his company's new Flipboard app for the iPhone had been officially approved. 

"OK!" he said. "This is good news."

That email meant Flipboard was on schedule for its next big launch. The company's social magazine app for the iPad has been one of the device's most popular apps, winning Apple's iPad app of the year award in 2010 and attracting about 4 million users, close to 1 in 4 iPad owners. Over the last year, McCue's Palo Alto company has doubled in size, to about 50 employees, and has locked down more than $60 million in funding.

In that time, the company has been slowly and deliberately focusing on the newly designed iPhone app.  The iPhone version of Flipboard is smaller and leaner -- not a shrunken version of the iPad app but a phone-sized social media digest, meant to be literally thumbed through while on the go. Its "Cover Stories" feature distills a custom selection of elegantly laid out social and real-world news that readers can get in screen-sized bites. 

We sat down with McCue to try out the newly released app (see above video), and to hear about the company's ambitious plans to move beyond its roots as a magazine app for the iPad and iPhone. Building on Flipboard's deep links to Twitter, Facebook and other social networks, McCue wants to harness the huge amount of data being generated by users of these major services to build a kind of social media nerve center -- a digital brain that listens to all your social networks and picks the most important and interesting stories, presenting them to you in a simple and organized way.

Question: That sounds ambitious. Can you say what it is you'd be trying to do?

Answer: Well, the Web as we've known it for a long time has been pages linking and pointing to other pages. But there's a new Web that's being created -- some people are calling it the social Web.

People are posting a huge amount of data, and there are more social networks being created all the time -- Path, Google+, 500 Pixels and many others. 

And the raw amount of Web you see on this social Web is crazy. There are billions and billions of posts everyday just on Facebook, and the growth is phenomenal. Twitter is at probably 180 million tweets a day -- three years ago it was 10 million or less. Because of all this, the social Web has far more intricate and subtle links between the nodes than the more primitive Web we grew up with in the mid-1990s.

So you can think of it as a river -- imagine all this information rushing past you as a user, with more friends coming on, sharing more stuff more easily, and on more social networks. The river is getting faster and deeper and wider, and it never ends. 

If a friend of yours from college gets engaged, he might post about it, and it's going to go right down the river. If you're looking at the moment, you'll see it, otherwise it could go right by. So what we're trying to do is keep an eye on that river for you -- try to pick some important things as they go by and hold them for you.

Question: How do you do that?

Answer: Well, last year we bought a company called Ellerdale. It was run by Arthur Van Hoff, the co-creator of Java and a very smart guy. What he'd been doing was looking at the Twitter firehose [that's a feed of every single tweet that everyone on Twitter generates], and analyzing and figuring out what mattered to the individual user. [When Flipboard bought Ellerdale, it had already "indexed" 6 billion messages from around the social Web.]

It's really advanced technology that goes out and looks at effectively every social network. Kind of like Google crawls the Web, we crawl the social networks. Where Google analyzes links and Web pages, we look at the same thing with people. So we can tell, for example, who you interact with more frequently. Or if it's not frequency, maybe it's consistency. For instance, my mom. She doesn't post that often, but every time she does I'm going to see it because the software knows I'm interested. So we're trying to discern: What is the small group of people that you find most interesting, regardless of the network they're on.

Question: So news in the Flipboard world is both traditional media news and social news?

Answer: It's a mix of what's going on in the world and what's going on in your world, fused together. And it might seem weird that I'm looking at a picture of my daughters, and then the next flip I'm reading a story about Iran. But to me as a reader, when I'm standing in line waiting to get my coffee, those things are what I care about.

Question: But how often do our personal lives generate something that would be considered socially newsworthy?

Answer: It happens pretty frequently. Let's say you go to a friend's wedding, or Thanksgiving, or Halloween. It'd be great the next day to see what went on with your friends' Thanksgiving weekend, or all the costumes they wore on Halloween, and be able to look back and see what they wore the year before, and the year before that.

There are a lot of things that happen in your life that are front-page-worthy, especially when you pull them together with outside events or with other people, it adds even more gravitas to those events. It might even be something as simple as that you care about what's going on on "American Idol," or that you got a new dog. And everything in between. These are the kinds of things people share about on social networks every day, but the problem is that those signals are very weak, and treated equally, and not grouped with other people who are experiencing the same things. You're left to figure it all out yourself.

Question: You've got a lot of magazines and websites you work with now -- the New Yorker, National Geographic, Vanity Fair, Flickr and a bunch more. Is Flipboard starting to make money for these publications?

Answer: We have about 60 publishing partners, and we just started working with them to sell ads. In particular, Condé Nast. We've only been selling ads for about three months, so it's too early to give you any insightful observation there. But readers love the full-page ads way more than banner ads. They're selling for 10 to 15 times the price of the banner ads because they're full screen. From a reader point of view, it just feels like you're flipping through a magazine.

Because we're still only on the iPad, we're only a tiny fraction of most publications' readership, much smaller than the Web. But as we start to scale to other platforms, we should become a broader part of their readership.

Question: When you say other platforms, do you mean other tablets? Like the Kindle Fire?

Answer: We think they're interesting, but we're concerned about not scaling to other devices too fast and watering ourselves down. 

The Kindle Fire is the first tablet I think has a shot at gaining critical mass beyond the iPad. And of course there are many other great Android smartphones out there too, as well as the Web itself -- so there's a lot for us to think through. 

Question: You're on Twitter's board of directors -- what can you say about the experience?

Answer: It's super interesting. As an entrepreneur, in many ways it's like looking into the crystal ball for what my company will hopefully go through as it starts to think about bigger challenges -- scaling internationally, getting ready to go public and all those different things. Not that Twitter is getting ready to go public.  But it's a company that I think is going to be quite valuable, and very meaningful in the world, and it's exciting to be part of that.

RELATED:

Flipboard gets $50 million and Oprah in one day

Flipboard's Mike McCue: Web format has 'contaminated' online journalism

Rolling Stone publisher no fan of digital magazine subscriptions for iPad, tablets

-- David Sarno / @dsarno

 
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