Flipboard is a giant iceberg lurking in the path of the media

When Flipboard recently announced it was opening up its platform to enable users to create their own magazines, I was surprised by the low-key reaction by the publishing industry. It wasn’t a particularly busy news day but still there was a fairly neutral vibe throughout the coverage – as if it was of no particular consequence. Yet after I plowed through what little there was, visions of icebergs began forming in my brain. The publishing industry should have no doubts that big trouble is lurking directly in its path.

In case you missed it, here’s Flipboard’s explanation and demonstration of its new capabilities:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9dv5QVs2_c]

It’s not if, but when

Now don’t get me wrong, Flipboard is no Facebook. Its 50 million-ish user base isn’t particularly active  (though I estimate only around 4 million are active, based on ratios from previous public statements). Not yet, anyway. And thank God, or the media/publishing industry would likely have a significant crisis on its hands, as opposed to one that’s somewhat in the distance still.

The reality the publishing needs to understand, though, is that Flipboard has (smartly) maneuvered itself into a powerful position. With the flick of a switch, it could deal a serious blow not only to the traditional old media but also to a variety of digital platforms – Tumblr, Flickr, WordPress, among others – as it pivots from purely curation-based interaction to one that offers users full-blown creation abilities. Indeed, this is likely its only future, since without the agreement of the major content creators, Flipboard would be little more than a collection of Tweets and blog posts.

It’s about money

Currently the ad model Flipboard is using is fine, but it’s fair to say it’s not setting anyone’s world on fire. That could change in a heartbeat, though, if the magazines Regular Joes create take off and real readerships are built. Could the next powerhouse of media come from a bedroom in Delaware?

It’s safe to assume then that the company is actively exploring revenue paths behind closed doors right now: micropayments, revenue-share or even subscriptions. Imagine consumers subscribing to read other consumer-curated magazines, or locking down content only to be opened like mag apps are now, or as in-app purchases per gaming, or even geo-location apps (Grindr). At the end of the day, though, it’s crucial to note that Flipboard has what no other publisher does: love from Apple, and quite possibly the credit card numbers that go with that love.

It’s about attention

Bless anyone in the media for not believing that this move hasn’t just made their job far harder. A reminder: You’ve just received yet another huge set of competitors vying for the same eyeballs you covet. If history is anything to go by, most people already feel quite satisfied parsing news (á la Google News) so this shift should be sending chills of terror through professional curators like editors and writers. After all, going big is likely only a creative ad campaign away for Flipboard.

Another major feature that news reports of Flipboard’s update typically neglected to mention is the bookmarklet capability. The idea is that readers don’t even have to be on Flipboard to still add content, from anywhere on the web. Awesome for users, existentially terrifying (and awesome) for the media.

Content creation is coming

So what to do? True, full-featured content creation capabilities are doubtless coming to Flipboard. How aggressive Flipboard moves in that area will be interesting, as the company obviously has to be careful about biting the hand that feeds it. (In fact several publishers have already pulled back from the partnerships, choosing instead to focus on their own apps). The only way for publishers and the media to fight back then will be to remove articles from the system, or cut a deal. However, I have said it before and I’ll say it again: No paywall will ever be truly successful unless all the competition is paywalled, too.

Either way, we have a glimpse of a possible future and it’s both beautiful and terrifying. For those unconvinced of the power and implications of what I’m talking about, take a minute to check out the custom @themediaisdying magazine that I cobbled together in precisely 33 seconds and you’ll see what I mean. Now imagine what happens when tens of millions of people start doing the same.

Paul Armstrong is owner of Digital Orange Consulting; follow him at www.paularmstrong.net or on Twitter @TheMediaIsDying.

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