The Web's Widening Stream

May 22, 2009

Chauga River via Flickr, courtesy Harriet PicturebugMedia companies attempting to reinvent themselves in the face of disruptive innovations must feel like they're playing cards with a 5-year old who keeps changing the rules to avoid losing. How we wish the bloody thing would just sit still for a minute, so that we could study and adapt. It doesn't, however, and each week seems to bring something new that frustrates yesterday's "cutting edge" strategy.

"You can't do that," says little Johnny, his mind blocking our winning move. And while we stop to argue, Johnny has already made his next move. The privilege of playing cards with him comes with the price of always losing, or so it seems.

For media and the Web, it's not quite as bad, for the signs of change have been around for years. Despite admonitions to embrace new paths, media companies deliberately chose not to play, because the uncertainty of what appeared to be chaos was too great a price to pay. Today, we have media empires such as the Associated Press wanting Google to change the rules of search, so that they can come out on top. Rather than play the 5-year old, we've instead become little Johnny ourselves.

During development of its "Longhorn" operating system in 2005, Microsoft adopted an RSS-friendly slogan that defined the company's view of the evolution of the Web:

Browse
Search
Subscribe

The "Browse" phase of the Web was its first, and it's where the name of the desktop application known as the browser originated. The Web was seen as a series of roads leading to destinations, We hopped from site to site — or in the case of AOL, destinations within the site — and everybody was happy. "Visitors" to sites were welcomed through a front door, which became the most valuable online real estate in terms of advertising.

"Search" disrupted the paradigm by allowing people to access documents within a site without going through that front door. We were still visiting sites, though, because that's "where" the content resided. Search destroyed the value of the home page, and also allowed for advertising adjacent to search results — a way of monetizing content that existed only in link form on the pages of the search. If you wanted to buy ads next to football content, you didn't need to buy football pages, for example. You could simply buy ads on search results for football.

"Subscribe" blew everything apart, because users no longer had to even visit websites, assuming publishers were willing to make their content available in RSS form. Most major publishers refused to play the game, so media company RSS feeds have generally contained only a sentence or two, thereby forcing users back to the site of origin, where publishers can monetize pages. This irritating practice has kept publishers from exploring revenue possibilities in a truly subscriber-based environment, and it's the key thing holding back the development of RSS.

But a new paradigm is threatening all of the others and will eventually force all publishers into the unbundled media world. The staggering popularity of social media messaging via Facebook and MySpace "status updates" and, of course, Twitter is creating an information ecosystem that is a series of real-time streams. These streams come in short bursts, but when added to the RSS of Microsoft's "subscribe" phase of the Web, they form powerful, relevant and meaningful sources of knowledge and information for an increasingly networked world.

Edelman web guru Steve Rubel calls the "browse" phase "the destination Web," and he wrote last month that this era was drawing to a close.

...the numbers prove it.

In March the average American visited a mere 111 domains and 2,500 web pages, according to Nielsen Online. What's worse, our attention across these pages is highly fragmented. The average time spent per page is a mere 56 seconds. Portals and search engines dominate, capturing approximately 12 of the 75 hours spent online in March. However, people-powered sites like Wikipedia, Facebook and YouTube are not far behind, snagging nearly 4.5 hours of our monthly attention.

The Real Time Web is a river of dataDigital analyst Om Malik has been writing about this for the past couple of years and coined the term "Real Time Web" as the next evolutionary step in the Web.

I believe that we are seeing a disruption of behavior in how people use the web. For now, it is still an early adopter phenomenon, but with 200 million Facebook subscribers and Twitter’s rocket-like growth, it is only a matter of time before these two sources become major web content discovery engines. How these changes will impact Google’s business remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure — many Web content discovery engines that exist as destinations (Digg, for example) are going to face challenging times.

Venture Capitalist John Borthwick, whose company (Betaworks)has invested in this new infrastructure, views these streams as the new metaphor for the Web, making pages and other print media nomenclature obsolete.

In the initial design of the web reading and writing (editing) were given equal consideration - yet for fifteen years the primary metaphor of the web has been pages and reading. The metaphors we used to circumscribe this possibility set were mostly drawn from books and architecture (pages, browser, sites etc.). Most of these metaphors were static and one way. The steam metaphor is fundamentally different. It’s dynamic, it doesn't live very well within a page and still very much evolving.

A stream. A real time, flowing, dynamic stream of information — that we as users and participants can dip in and out of and whether we participate in them or simply observe are a part of this flow.

Writing of Borthwick's metaphor, Erick Schonfeld of TechCrunch noted that the stream "does not replace Web pages or search...but it has the potential to completely transform them."

...the shift from pages to ever-widening eddies of information will have a dramatic downstream impact on many Web businesses, especially media businesses. This rising stream has the potential to fundamentally change the contours of media distribution on the Web. Large destination sites like Yahoo and AOL, already weakened as distribution hubs by search and social networks, now face the prospect of becoming completely bypassed. No wonder AOL is sticking the stream in every part of its service, from its homepage to Bebo to AIM. (Yahoo is grappling with the emergence of the stream as well, but so far still thinks it can hold onto its place as a central traffic and distribution hub).

Schonfeld notes that the problem for consumers, of course, is information overload, but proponents of the stream feel that fear is overstated. Borthwick, for example, says the mission isn't to absorb everything or get to the bottom of a page; it's "a flow of data that we can dip into at will."

Rivers of NewsIn 2007, the creative mind of Dave Winer birthed a concept that he called "rivers of news." Frustrated that news organizations weren't giving him what he wanted as a user, he created software that allowed him to place every story from the New York Times into a steady stream of content that he could dip into and out of whenever he wished. Borthwick's metaphor comes straight from Winer's innovation two years ago. Most people point to Winer as the person who birthed blogging and RSS, so his "news river" is a logical extension of earlier creations.

Two years later, the Times has launched an application it calls "TimesWire" that is, in essence, Winer's river of news. But what Borthwick, Malik and others are seeing is much more sophisticated and involves the blending of multiple streams to create a real-time user experience to keep abreast of all that is news, regardless of your definition of the term.

The question for media in all of this is how to be a part of the stream or, more importantly, how to monetize it.

Shortly after Winer's creation, I published an essay titled "News is a Process, Not a Finished Product" that laid out the model of what we at AR&D call "Continuous News." Culled from my earlier work on unbundled media (including the seminal 2005 essay "The Unbundled Newsroom"), the concept follows the Microsoft "subscribe" categorization of the Web and presents news in blog format, the pioneer of which is the entertainment news juggernaut TMZ.com. A few month's later, the Project for Excellence in Journalism referenced the concept as one of the top trends for 2008.

News consumption has become continual, with news morphing from a "finished" product — a newspaper, a newscast, even a Web site — to a service that helps consumers "find what they are looking for [and] react to it."

One of the key reasons we support the Continuous News model is that its output, in RSS form, is ideally suited to the stream metaphor. As this new phase of the Web develops, we'll see innovations in how to filter the stream for individual consumption, and that's where the money will eventually be. For media companies to be a part of this, however, we're going to have to jump into it without holding back — using full-feed RSS, for example, instead of "teasing" people to get them back to our archaic portals.

Advertising will be another fundamental part of the stream, but the rub for media companies is that advertisers can enter the stream themselves, without the assistance of being attached to media content. This is the inevitable end of a truly unbundled media world (see here and here).

The act of subscribing to any aspect of the stream is one of opting-in, and it may be at this point that media companies can either harvest data for subsequent mining or attach some form of ongoing user fees to pay for the cost of creating our content. Regardless, the stream is only going to get stronger and stronger in the months and years ahead, and we simply have to get into its current.

We should also be exploring filtering mechanisms for investment, because this is the new point of consumption for web users in an unbundled media world.

Johnny may be unpredictable and change the rules on a whim, but we always know that his motivation is to win. With the Web, the motivation is always to provide value to end users, so we ought not to be surprised by the evolutionary categories that spring up before us. The trick is to get in sync with where its all headed rather than try and drag it into something that's more convenient for us.

Only Superman, after all, can change the course of a mighty river. For the rest of us, it's just a wild ride.