Flipboard CEO Mike McCue: What If We Remade The Internet?

Mike McCue cringes at the thought of anything on Flipboard being "appy." Instead, it should be "printy." To do that, he reinvented the web. Sort of.

Flipboard turns three years old this week. Fast Company was fortunate enough to meet with Mike McCue, the social content service's CEO and Netscape vet, earlier this year. Over breakfast he recounted the origin story of the now 75-million-user app. Find an edited transcript below. It begins with a thought experiment.

Mike McCue

What if you had to build the Internet a second time around from scratch knowing everything we know today? Knowing that social is really core to what we're doing, knowing that everything is moving to mobile, knowing all of the ups and downs we had about the web and how the web has been monetizing and how journalism has happened on the web. What would you do differently to redo a better version of the web?

That was the thought experiment.

We spent a lot of time just looking at how the presentation of the web was and in many ways.

One observation we had was that it was stuck heading into mid-'90s in terms of the templates: the way the web works with those columns of text, a toolbar, a navigation thing at the top and a sidebar, skyscraper ads, and related links and comments. All the content that's squished down into this relatively small area of the screen. That was a major observation that got us thinking more about prints. We see beautiful articles in Fast Company and then you go and you look at it on the web, it's nowhere near as beautiful. On print you have a full page for content and then you have a full page for advertising. That was one major observation.

I had been reading magazines a lot and I love magazines, and so I was always asking myself why is it that these gorgeous articles just don't translate well to the web? Presentation was one aspect of it. The other major observation was that the web as we know it now is far more intricate and complex than the web back in the '90s when the web browser was originally created. The web has now evolved. Instead of just a document pointing to a document--a very simplistic structure--now you have basically people pointing to documents or people pointing to components or elements within those documents.

Then people pointing to other people. Then, as a result, you look at the web that way, the web can take on a perspective for you that is very different than what somebody else might see as the web. Then the amount of information that we have available on the web has dramatically increased and yet we're still using this web browser that was basically designed in the mid '90s to browse that web. It's just nowhere near as efficient.

Then of course we're moving to mobile, and so not only do you have this social web phenomenon, but mobile is now increasingly how people are accessing the web.

Again, that brought us back into some of the first principles of print. Looking at that and then also looking at the world of magazines, we thought this is really interesting parallel here and there's a lot of lessons that can be brought to each of those worlds. That's why we created Flipboard as a social magazine meant for an iPad, meant for a large touch-screen device. That idea of content presented beautifully, oriented around communities, and special topics of interest is really powerful. A lot of the cues we take are from the world of print, but we're also taking a lot of cues from the world of the web and we're fusing those things together into something new.

If you jump into that web as any one of those (social) nodes, you're going to see a very different web. For example, if you jump into that web at a person level and that person is pointing to all sorts of content around their passion, for example, you'll see content about high-performance equestrian stuff. In the days of old you would jump into a website about horseback riding and that was only one point of view from that website and there were relatively few of those. Now you have all these people who have this point of view on horseback riding. You can jump in at any one of those points and see what that point of view is, and it's somewhat different depending on where you jump in.

The other component is that the content of the point of view that we give you on the web is way more about topics and interests as opposed to people. Facebook is about seeing what your friend is doing. Twitter, you follow different people. Flipboard is about passions and interests and topics, and so it's the same social web that all of these products are letting you look at, but Flipboard is coming at it from a more topical point of view. It creates a more pressure-free environment to enjoy content. You don't feel like you have to interact with a whole bunch of people when you get on Flipboard. It's not a source of social anxiety.

It's much more about just feeding your interests. That comes back to the presentation which is much more of what traditionally feels like a magazine. All you have to do is just flip and there's tangibility. It's not a stream and a feed you manically scroll. It's much more like a story. Just turn pages and you get great content.

[Image: Flickr user Johan Larsson]

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2 Comments

  • Anthony Reardon

    Quite interesting.

    I have to agree there needs to be more attention put into design sense, web usability, and end-user experience optimization. One thing I like about print/ magazines is they do incorporate these elements for a very specific effect. Yet, when you look at the web versions, you do get the sense they are trying to work within parameters of the technology, and the shortcomings are noticeable.

    I can also relate to the forced nature of social feeds today. Many sites, for instance, try to make a point they are social hotspots, but in a lot of respects this does lead to a sense of social anxiety. Furthermore, if you really take a look at the social activity itself, most of it can be garbage, and in fact are not necessary nor conducive to the real social engagement possible.

    So I like what I see with this Flipboard. I like the minimalist design, enhancement of  media experience, and understated social options.

    At the same time I get a little skeptical about anything or anyone from a Netscape legacy. These are some of the first guys to try to monetize the web, and sometimes that underlying motivation can take the tools we are using in the wrong direction- even if proposed as improvements. For instance, I was a long time user of a platform for creating social networks (One of Andreessen's projects), but recently they were acquired by an online adserving/ media entity. Sure enough they have reimagined the product as a publishing platform, incorporated responsive web design, and so on. They propose these as moving forward, but it was quite clear to me they are really focusing on what brand advertisers want- not necessarily the actual end-users. I picked up undertones of the same kind of thing in this article.

    Best, Anthony

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