Flipboard wants to tame the unruly stream by becoming more like a traditional magazine

Curation seems to be a dominant trend with media startups these days, whether it’s the relaunch of the socially-powered news-recommendation app Trove or mobile ventures like the new Inside app from Jason Calacanis, which uses humans to aggregate the news. Now Flipboard, which helped spawn the market for mobile news-readers in 2010, says it wants to help users tame the never-ending stream of content by adding features that make it more like a traditional magazine.

Flipboard co-founder Evan Doll said the new features — which launched today and will start rolling out to everyone gradually over the next few weeks — are designed to give users a way to scan the top headlines or items in the major content categories they might be interested in — whether that’s content on specific topics, or from specific sources they have chosen, or articles recommended by Flipboard’s human editors and algorithms.

The new features have been in the experimental stages for several months, and are now being integrated into the “Cover Stories” section, which is one of the most popular feeds. “We really wanted to figure out how to make the experience of consuming the news easier,” Doll said. “Like a magazine does, not just visually but in the way they make information approachable.”

Like the sections in Time magazine

The new Cover Stories arranges content according to topic as well as source, Doll said: instead of just the usual selection of news items from RSS feeds or other sources arranged in reverse chronological order, the new section groups all the top posts from specific sources a user subscribes to, as well as from Flipboard-created sources like “Flipped by Friends.” Doll said the app uses machine intelligence to figure out how many items to show from each category.

Flipboard Cover Stories

Doll said that the inspiration for the new sections came partly from printed magazines like Time, which have shorter news items up front, then a photo essay or other feature, then longer pieces further into the issue. One of the things this approach does, he said, is to provide a bit more structure to something that had previously been just a stream of content from a multiplicity of sources.

“We realized that it shouldn’t really just be one undifferentiated mass, like a smoothie where you throw all these different things into a blender — because then it has everything you might want from different sources, but it’s not very appetizing. This lets you browse those different sources more easily.”

Giving readers something they can finish

One of the things that interested me most about these new features is that the Flipboard co-founder said they are partly designed to ease the anxiety some users might feel about never getting to the end of the massive streams of content pouring over them — something Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic has written about, and something I have brought up a number of times as well. An endless stream of real-time content can be a magical thing, but it can also be overwhelming.

As Doll put it, access to such vast quantities of data is “both a bug and a feature,” so the groupings within Cover Stories are an attempt to give users a way to get a handle on all of that information quickly, while still allowing them to drill down deeper into specific sources or topics if they have time. He said the arrangement of sections and choice of items is driven by a range of factors.

“We look at the frequency with which you look at the feed, so we can give you a highlight if you visited it recently, or just give you the top items. Right now we bias pretty heavily towards the order in which you’ve added things to Flipboard, but also based on how often you visit that feed. And we do look at signals from the Flipboard universe if something is being really heavily shared as well.”

One of the things that the new groupings or sections will allow Flipboard to do, Doll said, is to improve its recommendations by watching what sources and items a user interacts with — whether they read it, whether they share it, etc. “We have always placed a high value on the human curation, and we will still do that,” he said. “But this allows the Flipboard experience to be much more data-driven.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / ChameleonsEye