2013: The Year 'the Stream' Crested

Or take Medium. Medium is premised around collections. It's set up like a periodical. Even the clean, whitespace-heavy design says: there is nothing else to do but read this post. Stand on this rock in the stream. 

Or take some of the most popular forms on Reddit: the Ask Me Anything and the TIL (today I learned). While both posit liveness from a celebrityish type or user, they do not look anything like other streams. They are something else. Hell, Reddit as a whole fits very uncomfortably into The Stream metaphor; it's more like a hive.

Or Snowfall(ing). These kinds of stories set themselves out of the stream through design and massive effort. They may not pay for themselves, but they stake a claim on an important idea: that there are values beyond nowness.

Or take the re-rise of paywalls. It's not just newspapers, either. A cutting-edge technology publication called The Information just launched for $39.99 a month. Beyond the monetary value, a paywall says, this place is not part of the stream. We don't just want to show up on your Facebook wall.

Lastly, look at the huge viral successes of the year, Upworthy, ViralNova, TwentyTwoWords, FaithIt, and all the rest. They take advantage of the structure of the stream and the psychological problems it makes for people.

These sites traffic in narrative porn. The whole point of their posts is that they are idealized stories with a beginning, middle, and end. They provide closure. They are rocks that you can stand on in the stream, just to catch your breath.

Finally, look at Facebook's intensive news feed engineering. We already know that Facebook allows just a trickle of the flood of updates that your friends are putting up to reach your stream. But they're now explicitly giving more attention to older, better-performing posts

It's not that Facebook thinks the stream is going away—it is the most important stream, after all—but that they're playing with the algorithm suggests that not everything is working. 

This is the strange circumstance that obtained in 2013, given the volume of the stream. Regular Internet users only had three options: 1) be overwhelmed 2) hire a computer to deploy its logic to help sort things 3) get out of the water.

* * *

On the banks, something (Reuters).

What we do with media, how their technologies work, and how we describe them are not exactly the same thing. But en masse, people find ways to talk about television or the Internet or Facebook that make sense and that capture elements of their behavior and the technical innards of these systems. 

The idea of the stream has become so dominant that it is easy to think it is the natural state of things in a networked media environment. "Of course we have the stream: this is the Internet after all." That's why it's so important to look back at 2009 (just 2009!) and remember that the stream is a creation of particular companies and thinkers. Yes, they were following what worked, they were following the numbers. But they were also guided by their own desires and Brian Eno quotes and their guts

So, something else can be built, a new metaphor can take hold, and a different Internet could come into being. What might it look like? 

The most obvious thing would be the stream would remain, but other types of content would have greater power and attention. Robin Sloan's idea is that the master metaphor should be stock and flow:

  • Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.
  • Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.

So the simple answer is that there's too much flow and not enough stock. The Internet could rebalance away from the flow (i.e. the stream) and start making more durable things. 

But what if there is a more radical collapse or change? Certainly these things have happened before in Internet time. Maybe the stream takes over everything. The stream is the only thing that seems to give the Internet presence, that aura of realness that physical objects naturally possess. It's why people will pay money for camgirls to perform live, when they could watch videos of the same stuff for free.

And the stream, perhaps, reflects the world better than a daily newspaper or cable TV. It is messy, always-on madness, like life. And it occurs in real-time. The stream uses that core truth. And so it's hard to imagine people, en masse, giving that up!

But I don't think so (even though I think such a thing is possible). The thing that is hard to describe right now is how dynamic and feedback looped the Internet media production and consumption systems are right now. What one company discovers works filters higher and lower, from the most esteemed media brands to some kid in Minnesota. Everyone is (over)optimizing for the stream. 

That makes the media Internet a very fragile place. It's like a story of ecosystem collapse where once the delicate balances get thrown off, the biome begins to veer off in crazy directions, everything running around like Texas crazy ants

I think people will want structure and endings again, eventually. Edges and balance are valuable.

The great irony is that we got what we wanted from the stream: a way to read and watch outside the editorial control of editors, old Yahoo-style cataloging, and Google bots. But when the order of the media cosmos was annihilated, freedom did not rush into the vacuum, but an emergent order with its own logic. We discovered that the stream introduced its own kinds of compulsions and controls. Faster! More! Faster! More! Faster! More!

And now, who can keep up? There is a melancholy to the infinite scroll. 

Wouldn't it be better if we just said ... Let's do something else? Let's have the web be a museum or a curio box or an important information filter or an organizing platform. 

Or maybe let's just let the web be the web again, a network of many times, not just now.

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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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