2013: The Year 'the Stream' Crested

The Stream is fun and fast, but don't you miss the sense of an ending?
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Jumping into the The Stream (Reuters).

The Stream has been the organizing metaphor for the web for the past several years. In May 2009, a high-ranking editor of TechCrunch identified and summarized this grand shift in the way people used and talked about the web. 

"Information is increasingly being distributed and presented in real-time streams instead of dedicated Web pages. The shift is palpable, even if it is only in its early stages," Erick Schonfeld wrote. "Web companies large and small are embracing this stream. It is not just Twitter. It is Facebook and Friendfeed and AOL and Digg and Tweetdeck and Seesmic Desktop and Techmeme and Tweetmeme and Ustream and Qik and Kyte and blogs and Google Reader. The stream is winding its way throughout the Web and organizing it by nowness."

A simple way to describe this change: The New York Times on Twitter or Facebook or the Times Wire? That's The Stream. The New York Times paper or homepage? Not stream.

The Stream represents the triumph of reverse-chronology, where importance—above-the-foldness—is based exclusively on nowness.

There are great reasons for why The Stream triumphed. In a world of infinite variety, it's difficult to categorize or even find, especially before a thing has been linked. So time, newness, began to stand in for many other things. And now the Internet's media landscape is like a never-ending store, where everything is free. No matter how hard you sprint for the horizon, it keeps receding. There is always something more. 

Nowness also transmits this sense of presence, of other people, that you get in a city when you go to a highway overpass and look down at all the cars at any time of the day or night. Things are happening. I am not alone. Look at all this. 

Except on the web, you can listen to their conversations, hear their music, borrow their magazine articles, watch their videos. And they'll write back to you, too. 

Some of these people will be professionals who are paid to make stuff as quickly as possible that will be just perfect for your stream like "20 Signs You Went to San Jose State University." 

Schonfeld cited Betaworks CEO John Borthwick's thinkpiece, "Distribution Now," which he wrote in April of 2009, just as all this was really getting going. Borthwick concludes his post on the rise of The Stream with two quotes from musician Brian Eno. The old (and better) one begins like this:

"In a blinding flash of inspiration, the other day I realized that 'interactive' anything is the wrong word. Interactive makes you imagine people sitting with their hands on controls, some kind of gamelike thing. The right word is 'unfinished.' Think of cultural products, or art works, or the people who use them even, as being unfinished. Permanently unfinished. "

Remember that line: permanently unfinished.

Because I think it might be why 2013 is seen as the year the stream started to wane. 

* * *

It's hard out there (Reuters).

What was exciting in 2009—this pairing of reverse-chronological content with the expectation that the web's traditional and social media would be real-time— feels like a burden in 2013.

The early indications were when people started tossing around ideas like digital sabbaths and talking about FOMO (fear of missing out). But it was easy to think this was a niche feeling only for the media class and its associated hipsters across the country. 

Nowadays, I think all kinds of people see and feel the tradeoffs of the stream, when they pull their thumbs down at the top of their screens to receive a new updates from their social apps. 

It is too damn hard to keep up. And most of what's out there is crap.

When the half-life of a post is half a day or less, how much time can media makers put into something? When the time a reader spends on a story is (on the high end) two minutes, how much time should media makers put into something?

The necessity of nowness plus the professionalization of content production for the stream means that there are thousands and thousands of people churning out more crap than can possibly be imagined. And individual consumers of information have been tuned by social-media feedback mechanisms (Likes!) to do for free what other people do for money. They, too, write viral headlines, post clickbait, and compete for mindshare.

I am not joking when I say: it is easier to read Ulysses than it is to read the Internet. Because at least Ulysses has an end, an edge. Ulysses can be finished. The Internet is never finished. 

It's hard to know when changes are happening. As someone who spends all day on the Internet, I would say that I sense it. But the evidence I can present to you is partial, incomplete, suggestive more than authoritative. In that vein, I would say that nowness is not going away, but the bundle of ideas that formed the metaphor of the The Stream is pulling apart.

Let's look at some of the year's big products, services, and ideas.

Take Netflix's decision to release ALL of House of Cards at once. People were flabbergasted! How could they sacrifice the nowness?! 

But they did and people loved it. In contrast to live "appointment viewing," of a weekly show, House of Cards felt different, substantial. It was a weighty object that could be watched however you wanted to. 

Or take Snapchat and the Snowden-NSA revelations. They highlight a pernicious aspect of this metaphor: while the stream flows quickly past you, it flows into the vast, searchable reservoirs of companies and intelligence agencies. This stream is archived and data mined! On the Internet stream, you cannot keep up with the stream, but the stream can keep up with you. The NSA took advantage of this. 

And people, en masse, are beginning to respond by creating a disappearing stream. It's reverse-chronological and real-time, but it's also ephemeral, which changes all sorts of incentives and behaviors.

Snapchat says: If we can't disappear completely, let's leave as little of a trace as possible. Let's be water vapor, a passing fog, not the stream. 

Hacking the stream (Reuters).

On the tiniest level, many people (myself included) have been launching little e-mail newsletters. I've been writing into the stream for seven years, and I haven't had this much fun in a long time. My newsletter is finite (always less than 600 words) and it comes once a day. It has edges. You can finish it. 

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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