2013: The Year 'the Stream' Crested

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

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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