Streams aren’t going away… not yet, anyway

Alexis Madrigal thinks that the social architectural motif of the stream has outlived its utility, and that we may have passed peak stream. He argues that people want more closure, and a sense that things have an ending. He’s making an almost cinematic argument.

I disagree, and for several reasons.

First of all, successful architectural motifs for software do not just stop, they simply become less relevant, or less central. After all, the rise of the stream did not stop people from using motifs like the inbox, or chat, or comment threads. They are all there to be used.

Secondly, the premises behind streams remain essential to network-based information transfer. In the open follower model, I decide who to follow, and the streaming system — like Twitter or Tumblr — acts on my behalf to pull updates that I want to see. It’s inherently a filtering of the potentially greater torrent of all possibly relevant materials.

Lastly, the world doesn’t fit the artistic criticism that Madrigal makes: the world doesn’t have neat starts and stops. It flows. It is our psychology that looks for ends and beginnings.

Alexis refers back to Erick Schonfeld’s 2009 comments on the emergence of streaming applications:

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. 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.

Schonfeld cited John Borthwick’s 2009 essay, Distribution Now, as a source of the idea that you need to drop the idea of reading everything in the stream:

This isn’t an inbox we have to empty, or a page we have to get to the bottom of — its a flow of data that we can dip into at will but we can’t attempt to gain an all encompassing view of it.

In that essay, Borthwick — if you follow the stream of thoughts to its beginning — cited an video interview that I gave in May of 2009 following a presentation I gave about the web of flow and the nature of streams. (Note I was working with Borthwick at the time as an advisor to Bitly.) I started using the term years in late 2007 (see The Future OS: The Web of Flow), however. As far as I know, I was the first to discuss the nature of streaming apps this way, as the start of a new web experience, in essence: the web of flow. Clive Thompson, in his new book, Smarter than you think, has traced the meme back to me, as well.

This model is having dramatic impacts these days on the communication patterns in business, and work is increasingly adopting the patterns and byplay that is proven on the open public web.

So I think Alexis is a bit ahead of things, declaring the stream passé. There are advances that might shake things up — like Watson-grade AI or intelligent bots deciding how information might best be passed around, independent of the more static following and search of streams — but I haven’t seen that out there yet. And even then, streams would remain a proven paradigm: a useful tool for the toolbox.

Maybe Alexis is just projecting from his personal level of overload, and after the holidays he’ll bounce back.

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Stowe Boyd

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researcher-at-large Stowe Boyd

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