May 8, 2009
Welcome to The Stream
The Internet began evolving many decades before the Web emerged. And while today many people think of the Internet and the Web as one and the same, in fact they are different. The Web lives on top of the Internet's infrastructure much like software and documents live on top of an operating system on a computer.
And just as the Web once emerged on top of the Internet, now something new is emerging on top of the Web: I call this the Stream. The Stream is the next phase of the Internet's evolution. It's what comes after, or on top of, the Web we've all been building and using.
Perhaps the best and most current example of the Stream is the rise of Twitter, Facebook and other microblogging tools. These services are visibly streamlike, their user-interfaces are literally streams; streams of ideas, thinking and conversation. In reaction to microblogs we are also starting to see the birth of new tools to manage and interact with these streams, and to help understand, search, and follow the trends that are rippling across them. Just as the Web is not any one particular site or service, the Stream is not any one site or service -- it's the collective movement that is taking place across them all.
To meet the challenges and opportunities of the Stream a new ecosystem of services is rapidly emerging: stream publishers, stream syndication tools, stream aggregators, stream readers, stream filters, real-time stream search engines, and stream analytics engines, stream advertising networks, and stream portals are emerging rapidly. All of these new services are the beginning of the era of the Stream.
The original Tim Berners-Lee proposal that started the Web was in March, 1989. The first two decades of the Web (Web 1.0 from 1989 - 1999, and Web 2.0 from 1999 - 2009) were focused on the development of the Web itself. Web 3.0 (2009 - 2019), the third-decade of the Web, officially began in March of this year and will be focused around the Stream.
- In the 1990's with the advent of HTTP and HTML, the metaphor of "the Web" was born and concepts of webs and sites captured our imaginations.
- In the early 2000's the focus shifted to graphs such as social networks and the beginnings of the Semantic Web.
- Now, in the coming third decade, the focus is shifting to the Stream and with it, stream oriented metaphors of flows, currents, and ripples.
The Web has always been a stream. In fact it has been a stream of streams. Each site can be viewed as a stream of pages developing over time. Each page can be viewed as a stream of words, that changes whenever it is edited. Branches of sites can also be viewed as streams of pages developing in various directions.
But with the advent of blogs, feeds, and microblogs, the streamlike nature of the Web is becoming more readily visible, because these newer services are more 1-dimensional and conversational than earlier forms of websites, and they update far more frequently.
Defining the Stream
Just as the Web is formed of sites, pages and links, the Stream is formed of streams.
Streams are rapidly changing sequences of information around a topic. They may be microblogs, hashtags, feeds, multimedia services, or even data streams via APIs.
The key is that streams change often. This change is an important part of the value they provide (unlike static Websites, which do not necessarily need to change in order to provide value). In addition, it is important to note that streams have URI's -- they are addressable entities.
So what defines a stream versus an ordinary website?
- Change. Change is the key reason why a stream is valuable. That is not always so with a website. Websites do not have to change at all to be valuable -- they could for example just be static but comprehensive reference library collections. But streams on the other hand change very frequently, and it is this constant change that is their main point.
- Interface Independence. Streams are streams of data, and they can be fully accessed and consumed independently of any particular user-interface -- via syndication of their data into various tools. Websites on the other hand, are only accessible via their user-interfaces. In the era of the Web the provider controlled the interface. In the new era of the stream, the consumer controls the interface.
- Conversation is king. An interesting and important point is that streams are linked together not by hotlinks, but by acts of conversation -- for example, replies, "retweets," comments and ratings, and "follows." In the era of the Web the hotlink was king. But in the era of the Stream conversation is king.
In terms of structure, streams are comprised of agents, messages and interactions:
- Agents are people as well as software apps that publish to streams.
- Messages are publications by agents to streams -- for example, short posts to their microblogs.
- Interactions are communication acts, such as sending a direct message or a reply, or quoting someone ("retweeting"), that connect and transmit messages between agents.
The Global Mind
If the Internet is our collective nervous system, and the Web is our collective brain, then the Stream is our collective mind. The nervous system and the brain are like the underlying hardware and software, but the mind is what the system is actually thinking in real-time. These three layers are interconnected, yet are distinctly different aspects, of our emerging and increasingly awakened planetary intelligence.
The Stream is what the Web is thinking and doing, right now. It's our collective stream of consciousness.
The Stream is the dynamic activity of the Web, unfolding over time. It is the conversations, the live streams of audio and video, the changes to Web sites that are happening, the ideas and trends -- the memes -- that are rippling across millions of Web pages, applications, and human minds.
The Now is Getting Shorter
The Web is changing faster than ever, and as this happens, it's becoming more fluid. Sites no longer change in weeks or days, but hours, minutes or even seconds. if we are offline even for a few minutes we may risk falling behind, or even missing something absolutely critical. The transition from a slow Web to a fast-moving Stream is happening quickly. And as this happens we are shifting our attention from the past to the present, and our "now" is getting shorter.
The era of the Web was mostly about the past -- pages that were published months, weeks, days or at least hours before we looked for them. Search engines indexed the past for us to make it accessible: On the Web we are all used to searching Google and then looking at pages from the recent past and even farther back in the past. But in the era of the Stream, everything is shifting to the present -- we can see new posts as they appear and conversations emerge around them, live, while we watch.
Yet as the pace of the Stream quickens, what we think of as "now" gets shorter. Instead of now being a day, it is an hour, or a few minutes. The unit of change is getting more granular.
For example, if you monitor the public timeline, or even just your friends timeline in Twitter or Facebook you see that things quickly flow out of view, into the past. Our attention is mainly focused on right now: the last few minutes or hours. Anything that was posted before this period of time is "out of sight, out of mind."
The Stream is a world of even shorter attention spans, online viral sensations, instant fame, sudden trends, and intense volatility. It is also a world of extremly short-term conversations and thinking.
This is the world we may be entering. It is both the great challenge, and the great opportunity of the coming decade of the Web.
How Will We Cope With the Stream?
The Web has always been a stream -- it has been happening in real-time since it started, but it was slower -- pages changed less frequently, new things were published less often, trends developed less quickly. Today it is getting so much faster, and as this happens its feeding back on itself and we're feeding into it, amplifying it even more.
Things have also changed qualitatively in recent months. The streamlike aspects of the Web have really moved into the foreground of our mainstream cultural conversation. Everyone is suddenly talking about Facebook and Twitter. Celebrities. Talk show hosts. Parents. Teens.
And suddenly we're all finding ourselves glued to various activity streams, microblogging manically and squinting to catch fleeting references to things we care about as they rapidly flow by and out of view. The Stream has arrived.
But how can we all keep up with this ever growing onslaught of information effectively? Will we each be knocked over by our own personal firehose, or will tools emerge to help us filter our streams down to managable levels? And if we're already finding that we have too many streams today, and must jump between them ever more often, how will we ever be able to function with 10X more streams in a few years?
Human attention is a tremendous bottleneck in the world of the Stream. We can only attend to one thing, or at most a few things, at once. As information comes at us from various sources, we have to jump from one item to the next. We cannot absorb it all at once. This fundamental barrier may be overcome with technology in the future, but for the next decade at least it will still be a key obstacle.
We can follow many streams, but only one-item-at-a-time; and this requires rapidly shifting our focus from one article to another and from one stream to another. And there's no great alternative: Cramming all our separate streams into one merged activity stream quickly gets too noisy and overwhelming to use.
The ability to view different streams for different contexts is very important and enables us to filter and focus our attention effectively. As a result, it's unlikely there will be a single activity stream -- we'll have many, many streams. And we'll have to find ways to cope with this reality.
Streams may be unidirectional or bidirectional. Some streams are more like "feeds" that go from content providers to content consumers. Other streams are more like conversations or channels in which anyone can be both a provider and a consumer of content.
As streams become a primary mode of content distribution and communication, they will increasingly be more conversational and less like feeds. And this is important -- because to participate in a feed you can be passive, you don't have to be present synchronously. But to participate in a conversation you have to be present and synchronous -- you have to be there, while it happens, or you may miss out on it entirely.
A Stream of Challenges and Opportunities
We are going to need new kinds of tools for managing and participating in streams, and we are already seeing the emergence of some of them. For example Twitter clients like Tweetdeck, RSS feed readers, and activity stream tracking tools like Facebook and Friendfeed. There are also new tools for filtering our streams around interests, for example Twine.com (* Disclosure: the author of this article is a principal in Twine.com). Real-time search tools are also emerging to provide quick ways to scan the Stream as a whole. And trend discovery tools are helping us to see what's hot in real-time.
One of the most difficult challenges will be how to know what to pay attention to in the Stream: Information and conversation flow by so quickly that we can barely keep up with the present, let alone the past. How will know what to focus on, what we just have to read, and what to ignore or perhaps read later?
Recently many sites have emerged that attempt to show what is trending up in real-time, for example by measuring how many retweets various URLs are getting in Twitter. But these services only show the huge and most popular trends. What about all the important stuff that's not trending up massively? Will people even notice things that are not widely RT'd or "liked"? Does popularity equal importance of content?
Certainly one measure of the value of an item in the Stream is social popularity. Another measure is how relevant it is to a topic, or even more importantly, to our own personal and unique interests. To really cope with the Stream we will need ways to filter that combine both these different approaches. Furthermore as our context shifts throughout the day (for example from work to various projects or clients to shopping to health to entertainment, to family etc) we need tools that can adapt to filter the Stream differently based on what we now care about.
A Stream oriented Internet also offers new opportunities for monetization. For example, new ad distribution networks could form to enable advertisers to buy impressions in near-real time across URLs that are trending up in the Stream, or within various slices of it. For example, an advertiser could distribute their ad across dozens of pages that are getting heavily retweeted right now. As those pages begin to decline in RT's per minute, the ads might begin to move over to different URLs that are starting to gain.
Ad networks that do a good job of measuring real-time attention trends may be able to capitalize on these trends faster and provide better results to advertisers. For example, an advertiser that is able to detect and immediately jump on the hot new meme of the day, could get their ad in front of the leading influencers they want to reach, almost instantly. And this could translate to sudden gains in awareness and branding.
The emergence of the Stream is an interesting paradigm shift that may turn out to characterize the next evolution of the Web, this coming third-decade of the Web's development. Even though the underlying data model may be increasingly like a graph, or even a semantic graph, the user experience will be increasingly stream oriented.
Whether Twitter, or some other app, the Web is becoming increasingly streamlike. How will we filter this stream? How will we cope? Whoever can solve these problems first and best is probably going to get rich.
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