Reading is changing. And arguably, even more than e-readers, tablets, or “readers’ tablets,” smartphones are changing it.
This week kicked off with the release of Flipboard for iPhone and the clever adaptation of its “social magazine” model to a fully mobile format. Not to be outdone, FLUD, one of the leading personalized news app already available for iPhone, added new features with a brand-new 2.0 version; Google introduced Currents, a new publishing platform for both smartphones and tablets; and Flipboard competitor Zite likewise jumped from the iPad to the iPhone.
In an e-mail to Wired.com, FLUD CEO Bobby Ghoshal writes that the burst of personalized news networks are just filling a natural gap in the media landscape:
We see the media space as having four facets; music, video, photos and news. Then I think of all the networks I use for each of those, where each product says something about my taste. I’ve got Spotify and iTunes for my music playlists, YouTube and Netflix for video, Facebook and Instagram for my photos, and yet the industry falls short on giving me something great for news.
If we follow this taxonomy, the bridge between desktop, tablet and mobile experiences is likewise natural. In music, iTunes was built for mobile, just as Instagram was for photos and Twitter for social networking; YouTube naturally adapts itself to mobile, and Netflix to tablets. Now news readers are adapting too.
In retrospect, I think we’ll see this as an important moment in the history of media, as well as the history of the smartphone. After all, if there’s a single feature that’s always distinguished smartphones from “dumb” handsets, it’s this: Smartphones are built for reading as well as talking, for literacy as much as audibility.
In early smartphones, this reading was still pretty basic: short text messages, maybe e-mail, notes or calendars. A few enterprising souls even tried e-books. From those rude beginnings has grown a full ecosystem of apps on multiple platforms, not only web-capable browsers, but a mobile-optimized web, and emerging conventions for use that bridge interface choices and social expectations alike.
The flurry of activity around personalized news for smartphones shows that as popular as the iPad has been, and as popular as smaller Android-based devices like the Kindle Fire or Nook Tablet might become, the sheer number of users on mobile phones are impossible to ignore. It also shows that customers are demanding the ability to sync and read their content across as many devices as possible. Finally, the subtle differences in UI and app design show that developers aren’t just thinking about building for different screen sizes, but around a whole range of factors that affect how, where, what and when we read.
For the new mobile reading, context becomes a cluster of these factors. Flipboard’s Mike McCue highlights a few of these in an interview with the Los Angeles Times‘ David Sarno:
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.
In order to build for this world, media companies, software developers, advertisers and even users have to think about context differently.
Context is no longer “simply” the background to a story or the stories or advertising immediately flanking it. Context is now a multivariable function, dependent on:
- Medium: The form factor of the device, i.e., the screen and its capabilities, as well as everything else for which the device is typically used (and which structures users’ expectations of it). Hyperelastic text (hyper- or otherwise) that can be wedged into any form factor is a choice now, and not always the most elegant one. Media companies are thinking about the medium and its capabilities the way game designers once did — and they have the tools to do so.
- Location: Where the device is being used to access particular kinds of content — not just geospatially, in terms of longitude and latitude, but contextually. Not just in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, but at the grocery store in Bryn Mawr; not just at the grocery store, but waiting in line, as opposed to browsing in the aisles, and so forth. Media companities are thinking about space and its possibilities the way physical retailers once did — and they have the tools to do so.
- Time: Traditionally, text is independent of time, but not in the age of mobile communications. Not only does electronic news happen and become delivered in real time, but reader and user behavior changes. Flipboard on iPad is a lean-back, magazine experience. Flipboard on iPhone is a quick-peek, photo and headline experience. Both the time of day when the app is accessed and the duration of attention the user can offer it differ depending on the form factor. Text-based news companies are thinking about time and its constraints the way television news once did — and they have the tools to do so.
- Social: In news, users’ social networks act as both a filter and a megaphone. As Flipboard’s McCue says, using social as a filter ideally cuts through the noise of thousands of competing voices to bring together news of both personal and global relevance. But the primary mechanism it employs to do so is to act as a megaphone, allowing users to reshare, recommend, upvote or comment on a given news story in order to bring it to their networks’ attention. And once news is shared on a network, it can then spread to networks of networks and beyond. The real argument at this point is whether and to what extent news networks should borrow from the broadest possible definition and range of a user’s social graph, or begin with something more specific. Flipboard, for instance, borrows its power by leveraging as much as your entire networks from Facebook and Twitter, or as little as Flipboard-specific lists. In this sense, Flipboard is like a universal recipient. Meanwhile, Instagram is as specific as it gets; not only is your network Instagram-specific, but by default you can’t even register or view activity except through the app on your iPhone. In this sense, Instagram is a universal donor. But even it will use social networks’ APIs to help you discover friends who use the service. All this creates powerful network effects to lock users in and snowballing effects to help those networks grow — because they have the tools to do so.
- Identity: Even though many people would like to conflate “social” with “identity” ([cough] ERIC SCHMIDT [cough]), there are good reasons to keep the two distinct (and separate “personalization” from both of them). Identity is a complicated issue, both within and across social networks and different media, but in this context, I think identity blends self-presentation and the choices one makes within a service.
For instance, FLUD makes the data it collects around interactions and identity fairly explicit. “In the new Flud we show people some really great data about themselves,” Bobby Ghoshal told me — “your most-read sources, who you are influencing within our network, who else is reading an article with you in real time, and so on.
“It’s kind of like looking into a mirror,” Ghoshal says. “You end up getting a really clear picture of what your news personality looks like.”
In other services, this data’s implicit, even if it structures your interactions to an even greater degree. The sheer amount of data services collect create an image of every user in a service. This allows services to tailor what they present accordingly — and they have the tools to do so.
All of these constitute personalization and redefine context. You can slice them up into monetizable data, or blend them into an experiential gestalt. That’s why personalization is so powerful. And that’s why smartphones — the most personal devices we own — have become personalization’s front line.