Should We Say Goodbye to the Stream?

Don't look now, but the web may be getting less reverse-chronological.

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Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic is sick of the stream — the practice of arranging online content with the newest stuff at the top, followed by a never-ending, reverse-chronological list of everything that preceded it. It’s the fundamental organizing principle of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and countless other apps and services, but Madrigal says that it’s tiresome and has pernicious side effects:

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.

I’m not as weary of the stream as Madrigal is, but I think that he’s onto something. I recently chatted with the creator of a very stream-y app I’ve covered in the past: He’s currently working on an upgrade that dumps the stream approach altogether. And Mike McCue, the founder of Flipboard — one of the hottest startups out there — is downright passionate about the value of organizing content in a way that has a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s why Flipboard calls itself a “magazine.”

Then there’s the sheer tedium of so many new things adopting largely similar interfaces. In 2012, it seemed like practically every content-oriented startup I encountered essentially knocked off Pinterest’s streamish look and feel. That’s been less so in 2013, and with any luck, 2014 will bring more inventive thinking.

It would be fascinating if some major player that’s currently stream-centric went in a different direction. I’m trying to envision a version of Facebook you could visit for a fixed amount of time and then leave, knowing you’d consumed the whole thing — and though I’m not sure exactly how it would work, I’d love to see Facebook, or somebody, take a stab at it.