Breaking Down Social Magazines

Twitter feeds are exponentially faster than any conventional magazine out there. But magazines offer a far richer content experience. Imagine if you could take the best of both worlds for use on your iPad. That’s the start of a social magazine.
The three big players in the game are Flipboard, TweetMag, and Zite. All three offer their own take on a very interesting idea. Each magazine allows you to input your Twitter stream, but Flipboard allows you to add Facebook and Zite allows you to add Google Reader and Delicious. Each has its own way of adding additional sections to your social magazine in the form of staff curated lists or feeds. But according to Geoff Teehan of TweetMag, these curated categories are just a stopgap.
“We need to be able to intelligently bring stories based on implicit and explicit means. For example, we can learn a lot about what you like (or what you don’t like) based on what you’ve already read.” Teehan said. “We can also make pretty good educated guesses of what to present based on who you follow, who they follow, the lists you created, the things you search for etc.” Loading up Zite for the first time, it examines my feed and pre-selects several different categories for me, which were honestly pretty spot on.
Currently, these apps access content from other locations and often provide it in a simplified view. Khoi Vinh, former design director of the New York Times made it clear that they’re not quite social yet when “the use of these apps is not reflected back into the network, does not create new network connections or benefits. They merely access value where they should also be creating value.” But what will that next step be and how can they monetize it? With the amount of data they have from their users, there are a lot of different options for them to take.
The current consensus seems to be that standard advertising is the last option. “I don’t think it would provide much value to anyone,” Teehan said. “It would likely just produce more noise and a muddled experience.” Another solution currently in place is branded content categories, where you’ll find some content providers and publishers playing ball. What becomes really difficult is that any content stream aggregated by these apps can be cut off very easily.
Flipboard CEO Mike McCue was evasive about the question in a Q&A at South by Southwest Interactive. However, investors apparently see economic potential since revenue-free Flipboard is reportedly drawing an eye-popping $200 million valuation.
The method of reassembling content brings up thorny issues of legality. Publishers eye such companies warily, seeing their content repackaged and presented differently — usually without the ads that pay for its creation. Already Zite has come in the crosshairs of a group of publishers, who fired off a cease and desist letter to the company. Flipboard has a publisher partner program to get access to full stories from publishers. It will presumably split revenue it generates from ads with the publishers. There’s always the chance that publishers will dig in their heels and shut off access to their content from these aggregators.

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