Fast Flip Flops

By Tom Peters |

The elves over at Google Labs have emerged once again with yet another interesting information experience--Google Fast Flip, which they announced on Monday on the Official Google Blog. Fast Flip was designed to address one of the nagging problems of using the Web as a news source: when trying to browse quickly through several news sites to get up to date on what’s happening, many users, including those with “fast” Internet connections, find that it takes too long to load all of the content and pop-up laden webpages of the major newspapers and magazines. Thus, users in search of an informative web experience get a frustrating one instead.

Google News was a huge step in delivering news content in a digestible web format. It was, however, more of an aggregated digest of content; it didn't provide an information experience like rapidly flipping through all of the magazines in the dentist’s office, which seems to be the experiential model Google had in mind as it designed and built Fast Flip. Before Monday, skimming quickly through the major online news sources was like trying to run in flip flops. Google has built fast flip flops.

At launch, Fast Flip had about 40 newspapers and magazines on board, including the usual suspects – NY Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, Business Week – as well as a couple I didn’t know existed. I cannot claim that Veranda is on my must-read list, but, if I’m ever looking for a recipe for deviled quail eggs with capers, I’ll caper on over there.

Flip Flop's content is all English language material at this point, but BBC News is in the fold already, and Google promises to work on gathering content in languages other than English.

When viewing the Fast Flip browser, users see a series of thumbnail images of newsy webpages that have been grouped into broad clusters like "popular", "sections", "topics", and "sources". In turn, each broad cluster is broken up into subsections. The Popular cluster, for example, is broken down into "Headlines", "Most Viewed", "Recent", and "Recommended". Exactly how a "Popular" webpage gets chucked into the "Recommended" subsection is part of Google’s secret sauce.

Though Fast Flip gives you the ability to customize the content, organization, and presentation of its offerings, utilizing this feature remains fuzzy to me. There is a little “sign in” link lurking in the upper right corner of the homepage. When I clicked on it, I was presented with the standard Google account login box along with the following information and disclaimers: “Fast Flip uses Google Accounts for Sign In. Google is not affiliated with the contents of Fast Flip or its owners. If you sign in, Google will share your email address with Fast Flip, but not your password or any other personal information. Fast Flip may use your email address to personalize your experience on their website.” So it seems that personalization may be a collaborative effort involving myself, Google, and the Fast Flip content owners. Think of it as your personalization team, which may make personal trainers passé.

Google and the Fast Flip publishers are in this to make money, and they plan to do it through ad revenues (surprise, surprise). Here’s how the official announcement explained their plan: “These partners will share the revenue earned from contextually relevant ads. This gives publishers an opportunity to introduce new readers to their content. It also tests our theory that being able to read articles faster means people will read more of them, driving more ad revenue to publishers.”

Does Fast Flip offer any lessons for libraries? You betcha. First, we need an institution like Google Labs, with some money and bright people. For awhile OCLC seemed to want to be a Library Lab, among other things, but I have a vague sense that goal has been put on the back burner.

Second, the ancient methods of humans browsing for information are getting an extreme makeover. No more crick in the neck from leaning in to read the spine labels of books on a shelf. Browsing is often what people do in physical libraries, but I’m not really sure that librarians have taken browsing seriously as an information experience in its own right and as a way to dip into a bigger pool of information.

Back in 1995, Marty Kurth and I compiled an annotated bibliography about browsing in a wide variety of information systems. It was published by Ed Wall as Volume 10 of Library Hi Tech Bibliography. Fifteen years later, I remember two distinct things about that whole project. The first is that the processes of human information browsing are much more complex than they seem pre-reflectively. The second is that the prospects for online browsing are much richer than browsing through a print collection. Google seems to be taking browsing seriously, designing information systems that enable and encourage rapid online browsing. Libraries need to take browsing seriously.

A third lesson to be learned revolves around the fact that a mobile version of Fast Flip was available at launch. Granted, the app is available currently only for iPhones and Android devices, but the folks at Google Labs saw the mobile app as mission critical, so they didn’t launch the service until they had one.
A fourth lesson for libraries and publishers is that this rapid online browsing experience is all about the web content. Print isn’t really part of the equation anymore. Having said that, I noticed that much of the content being made available wasn’t very attractive to a Fast Flip browser. Many of the headlines were too small to read at a glance. Google solved that little problem by inserting the title below the thumbnail image. I can imagine many a Fast Flip content provider scrambling now to make their web content much more Fast Flippable.

Two cheers for Marshall McLuhan. The medium is at least part of the message, and part of the information experience.