Whether we know it or not, web users are all immersed in “the Stream.” It’s a simple, organic term for the rushing digital deluge of information. This paper explores the arrival and implications of the stream, how it has shaped digital publishing, and a way forward for online publishers.
SPACE-BASED TO TIME-BASED CONTENT
The idea of the Stream was first put forward by Yale professor David Gelernter. As early as 1996 he spoke about a shift beyond the “flatland known as the desktop” towards flowing streams of information. The Stream represents a move away from dedicated web pages, and the liberation of content from the confines of space. Instead, information is delivered in a real-time, reverse chronological flow. Gelernter believed the same principle would apply to all digital information—that we’d shift away from a “space-based” information model where files and articles are arranged in folders (alphabetically or by topic), to a “time-based” model where they are arranged from newest to oldest. “Space-based structures are static,” he explains. “Time-based structures are dynamic, always flowing—like time itself. The web will be history.” No, he’s not heralding the end of the web. He’s saying that, built on a time-based structure, everything that goes on the web immediately becomes history. “Any information object can be added at ‘now,’ and flows steadily backwards—like a twig dropped in a brook—into the past.”
By 2009, then-TechCrunch editor Erick Schonfeld encouraged readers to jump into the Stream, explaining that what began with RSS is now “much stronger and swifter, encompassing not just periodic news and musings but constant communication, status updates, instantly shared thoughts, photos, and videos.” Though in its early stages he said the shift was palpable as more and more information was being presented in in real-time streams instead of dedicated web pages. While Gelernter compares the old model to a magazine rack one would browse, Schonfeld compares our old metaphors to books and architecture: pages, browsing, sites etc. “Most of these metaphors were static and one way. The steam metaphor is fundamentally different. It’s dynamic, it doesn’t live very well within a page and still very much evolving,” he explained.
So if the Stream was a widely understood concept by 2009, it’s surprising that, almost four years later when Gelernter revisited his ideas in Wired, he came up against such hash reader backlash. His 2013 declaration of the arrival of the Stream elicited hundreds of comments mostly along the tenor of: “This guy’s a nut.” But strip away some of his tenuous metaphors and his misguided plugs for a trademarked “Lifestream” application, and you’ll find Gelernter isn’t actually saying anything new. We’ve been living and working in the Stream for at least a decade.
Could it be that we’re so immersed in the Stream, we don’t even realize we’re in water? Consider some of the places the Stream dominates: How often do I open an application on my computer and find a document, not according to what file I put it in, but according to my “most recent” documents? For 15 years we’ve consumed streams of RSS feeds—and now even that’s not “realtime” enough compared to the Twitter stream (Gilmor). The original Etsy homepage had you sort through a reverse chronological stream of images of handmade goods. Apple’s Time Machine and iPhoto are built on the Stream model, as are Gmail and Google Drive. Few of us consume media via discrete web pages any more—most of us find information via our personal curated streams on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or Pinterest. Take a look at how we peruse these (dare I say it?) “lifestreams” and it seems Gelernter is actually dead on when he says: “today, the most important function of the internet is to deliver the latest information, to tell us what’s happening right now.”
The Atlantic web editor Alexis Madrigal sums it up perfectly: “The Stream represents the triumph of reverse-chronology, where importance—above-the-foldness—is based exclusively on nowness.” This has never been as true as it is in the emergence of the Internet of Things. As we move away from the traditional browser toward browsers that move with us, nowness is more relevant than ever. What use is a smart watch or Google Glass, for example, if not to deliver time-based information? Among the many innovations Google released last year, the most applicable to my own life was the aptly named Google Now—a tool that’s inseparable from the Stream as it delivers real-time, pertinent, personal information right to your phone.
NAVIGATING THE CONTENT STREAM
The Stream fundamentally changed how content is produced and consumed. As we encountered the deluge, we came up with new ways of navigating it—like infinite scroll. Lest we drown in history, Pinterest, Hootsuite and Facebook now draw us back to the foot of the Stream with handy reminders that tell us we have x-number of new pin/tweets/posts. This January, blog veteran Grace Bonney shared a seminal post examining the “State of the blog union.” Her assessment is that the rampant Stream has made the homepage essentially obsolete. A look at sites that flourished in 2013 which have foregone homepages altogether—like Quartz—support her assertion. She says it’s now the job of bloggers—and I would add, the job of all digital publishers—to track down their audience. Gone is the serendipitous nature of discovery on the web.
Because the Stream is time-based (we could even say “now-based”) content producers can no longer simply stake their claim of web real estate. Whomever posted most recently is most visible, and as a result publishers have had to engage in a race to produce the most recent piece of content. Madrigal described this push to produce more, faster when he shared a day in the life of a digital editor. The negative consequence is that content is increasingly shallow, brief, or repurposed. “When the half-life of a post is half a day or less, how much time can media makers put into something?” asks Madrigal.
There’s no time to create anything of substance, nor is there any time to consume it. As readers, our attention spans decrease and we feel a sense of anxiety at never catching up. According to Bonney, blog comments at DesignSponge have significantly decreased: “The 2-3 minutes someone might have spent leaving a comment are now spread among other forms of engagement like Pinning, sharing or clicking a ‘like’ button.” For readers there’s a sense of urgency that just isn’t sustainable. As a result, the web feels permanently unfinished— “No matter how hard you sprint toward the horizon, it’s always receding” (Madrigal), and this might always be the case.
But that’s not too say there hasn’t been a recent countercurrent and—at the risk of compromising the metaphor—a plateau. In 2009 Schonfeld predicted readers would eventually bow under information overload. “It is too damn hard to keep up. And most of what’s out there is crap,” says Madrigal. “What was exciting in 2009…feels like a burden in 2013.” And sure enough, web pundits claim 2013 is the year the blog died.
FLOW & STOCK
The Stream itself lives on, but two distinct trends are emerging as a result of its relentless flow: stock and ephemerality. The idea of “stock” comes from author Robin Sloan who explained that digital content is a delicate blend of “stock and flow.” Flow is the endless stream of posts and tweets. It’s a treadmill, says Sloan, “and you can’t spend all of your time running on the treadmill.” Stock on the other hand is lasting and durable. It’s the content that’s as relevant in a year as it will be today—the content that keeps people coming back to your site via search, like 2012’s Pulitzer-prize-winning digital story “Snowfall.” With it, the New York Times went against the grain—investing both time and space into a story. It’s timeless and doesn’t depend on now-ness.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, for transitory content we’re increasingly shifting toward a stream that dissipates into a fog, like Snapchat—media so literally ephemeral, keeping up isn’t an option. Buzzfeed and Reddit trade in this fog and they’ll continue to have a place in the balance of flow and stock that readers seem to demand.
What does that mean for publishers? The simple answer is that there’s room for more stock. The rise of “narrative porn” and growing interest in longreads indicates readers are ready to slow down and let the Stream pool around them. It suggests it’s time for publishers to invest in stock and, as Sloan says, hire someone else to do flow for you.
“All media on the web… has blog DNA,” says tech blogger Jason Kottke, and for this reason, the Stream will probably continue to dominate for a long time. Digital publishers should take heart and see the opportunities it presents—the pace at which the Stream happens means they can experiment with new forms, and almost immediately see what works. It’s a great time to test and iterate, but also, to fearlessly set aside what’s no longer working. It means thoughtfully crafted content may float above the rushing stream and we might all, one day, get to wade in a lazy river.
Addendum – March 28, 2014
If this Medium article had been written, and I’d had more space, I would have expanded on the topic of infinite scroll and used this very astute remark by Janelle Torkington: “The problem with newsfeeds is one of information overload. When scrolling through an endless list of options, it’s impossible to reach the end. Since there’s no way to review all the possibilities, it robs the user of a sense of finality. ”
Bonney, Grace. “State of the Blog Union: How the Blogging World has Changed.” DesignSponge. 28 January 2014. Web. Accessed 23 March 2014. http://www.designsponge.com/2014/01/state-of-the-blog-union-how-the-blogging-world-has-changed.html
Gelertner, David. “The End of the Web, Search and Computer as we Know It.” Wired. 1 February 2013. Web. Accessed 22 March 2014. http://www.wired.com/opinion/2013/02/the-end-of-the-web-computers-and-search-as-we-know-it/
Kottke, Jason. “The Blog is Dead, Long Live the Blog.” Nieman Journalism Lab. 19 December 2013. Web. Accessed 23 March 2014. http://www.niemanlab.org/2013/12/the-blog-is-dead/
Kottke, Jason. “Tumblelogs.” Kottke.org. 19 October 2005. Web. Accessed 23 March 2014. http://kottke.org/05/10/tumblelogs
Madrigal, Alexis. “2103: The Year the Stream Crested.” The Atlantic. 12 December 2013. Web. Accessed 22 March 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/12/2013-the-year-the-stream-crested/282202/
Madrigal, Alexis. “A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor.” The Atlantic. 6 March 2013. Web. Accessed 23 March 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/03/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-digital-editor-2013/273763/
Schonfeld, Erick. “Jump Into the Stream.” Techcrunch. 17 May 2009. Web. Accessed 22 March 2014. http://techcrunch.com/2009/05/17/jump-into-the-stream/
Sloan, Robin. “Stock and Flow.” Snarkmarket. 18 January 2010. Web. Accessed 23 March 2014. http://snarkmarket.com/2010/4890
Steinberg, Steve G. “Lifestreams.” Wired. February 1997. Accessed 22 March 2014. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.02/fflifestreams.html?pg=2&topic=