On Streams

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Inman Connect New York | January 29 - February 1, 2019

Why the ‘destination web’ is no more, and how ‘nowness’ has transformed the Internet

Dear Sophie – Video

“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 stream metaphor is fundamentally different. It’s dynamic, it doesn’t live very well within a page and is 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 we are a part of this flow.”

– John Borthwick: Distribution Now, April 2009

Many believe that what’s beginning to be termed Web 3.0 will be all about filtering the noise, reducing an increasing sense of digital overload, and allowing us to interact with the web in a more meaningful way. A way that doesn’t involve hopping from platform to platform in a futile and exhausting attempt to keep up.

These deeper, longer and more meaningful experiences will still exist in a sea of noise, and produce an ever increasing volume of content creation in accordance with Zuckerberg’s Law, but our experience of them and how we find them will change.

Correction – is changing. It’s already here.

My recent post On Reading explored ideas around why people are reading less online and discussed the notion of attention span, but there’s an important content organization and distribution shift that’s fueling those patterns. How things find us online has changed. As Betaworks’ John Borthwick suggests, they’ll exist inside of streams of information, and we’ll elect to dip into them at certain points in time, of our choosing. In many ways we’re already doing this with social platforms such as Twitter. A stream that’s a constant flow of data, and of which we have no real sense of the whole, but that has the capacity to completely change the way information on the web gets distributed. Passive or active, the future of the web is in the stream.

Social sites built on the idea of the stream include Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Foursquare, Tumblr, and of course, most recently, Google+. They reflect an increasingly powerful idea of how people primarily interact with the web, where they spend most of their time, and where organizations create relationships, grow businesses and brands, and capture data already proving invaluable to marketers. The stream is an exciting place to be, and a great place to hang out. It’s where news breaks and conversations happen in their thousands each second. It visualizes the pulse of the real-time web in a way that commands immediate response, and large investment.

However, the idea of the constant, dynamic, ever evolving flow of information in the stream has problematic implications for services built on the idea of being destinations, especially those built using the notion of a flow of assembled pages – think of the traditional format of homepage, search, results and pages – millions of sites were built using this book-centric format over the previous 15 years. The web is no longer modeled after books – introduction screens, tables of contents, and the biggest change, pages.

The shift way from this approach is having wide-reaching impact upon reading in general. If the main way we experience the web is now through the flow of information in streamed format, just like we used to with television (but no longer do in a time-shifted era of DVRs and online viewership), but this time on our own schedules, and with our own content, then the idea of visiting a web page becomes a lot less valuable, especially in aggregate when we begin to look at the stream in its wider context. Sites predicated on slow-moving, rarely updated web pages, despite their content, are usually invisible in the stream, and give rise to fueling more and more noise in the streams themselves when they’re linked to – does this sound familiar? It should – most real estate websites use this model. Sites built as destinations are now competing with sites built as streams, with some large consequences for industries built on filtering and aggregating information, such as news, and of course, our own.

John Borthwick, quoted in Erik Schonfeld’s excellent post ‘Mining the thought stream’ characterizes these differences in a wonderful way, suggesting that pages don’t contain the key pieces of information so critical to the real-time web, and illustrates this using the example of the Hudson River plane crash in New York, otherwise known as ‘The Miracle on The Hudson’. On that frigid afternoon, there was nothing about that story on Google, and barely any coverage on most of the major online news outlets, save a page or two, and perhaps a link from the homepage, hours later. However, it was a massive event on Twitter, with thousands of real-time conversations, pictures posted from the passengers and nearby ferries themselves, and the incredible capacity to watch the news as it unfolded before you online. Like most events on Twitter, the story was ‘alive’ there, but was invisible on Google. Only later did it get archived, indexed and categorized, and much longer after that did it appear in articles, assembled by journalists and cut down by editors.

Pages archive the web, but they’re not the true essence of the living, breathing, real-time web where most people are spending their time and deriving the most value from their dwindling online attention span. The idea of storytelling as being in the DNA of the most shareable content is a key idea behind how streams work. Storytelling is at the heart of communities, families and relationships. For those in the real estate industry, remember it’s also at the heart of what it feels like to own a home.

“. . . How is real time search different? History isn’t that relevant – relevancy is driven mostly by time. . . . This reformulation of search as navigation is, I think, a step into a very new and different future. Google.com has suddenly become the source for pages – not conversations, not the real time web. What comes next? I think context is the next hurdle. Social context and page based context. . . . Twitter search today is crude – but so was Google.com once upon a not so long time ago.”

– John Borthwick: Quoted in ‘Mining The Thought Stream’ TechCrunch February 2009

With mobile, we now take these streams with us everywhere, and we can choose to dip into them or not. We can choose to participate, or not. But with destination sites, we still have to visit and navigate, and this is the key idea that’s being undermined and eroded by real-time services. ‘Visiting’ the homepage of AOL, Digg or Yahoo simply does not have the value it once held, now that we’re in the era of Twitter or the personalized Facebook news feed. As people begin to make their own streams, as well as participate in the streams of others, this is where the creation of lifestreams becomes popular.

Lifestreams contain the idea of digital storytelling that will finally come to life for brands and marketers this year. Lifestreams are the daily record, aggregated across all platforms, of what you’re doing throughout the day. Who you’re chatting to on Twitter, who you’re checking in with on Foursquare, who you’re sharing with on Facebook, who you’re watching with on YouTube. Path is probably the closest service to implement this holistic idea in a beautiful, shareable way so far.

‘Path, Share Life’ – Video

Facebook’s implementation of Timeline and their acquisition of Gowalla’s team of design-driven, storytelling, user experience designers (http://bit.ly/rPH9jm) should give you some sense of where we’re headed here. We’ll see a greater emphasis on the linear, searchable presentation of the minutiae of our collective everydays. Brands will become more humanized when timelines force them to remember their past and where they’ve come from. For many of them, especially in the real estate industry, it might be a humbling experience. But it will make brand presences, especially inside Facebook, more structured and searchable, something Facebook has struggled with immensely as they’ve grown.

“…a time-ordered stream of documents that functions as a diary of your electronic life; every document you create and every document other people send you is stored in your lifestream. The tail of your stream contains documents from the past (starting with your electronic birth certificate). Moving away from the tail and toward the present, your stream contains more recent documents – papers in progress or new electronic mail; other documents (pictures, correspondence, bills, movies, voice mail, software) are stored in between. Moving beyond the present and into the future, the stream contains documents you will need: reminders, calendar items, to-do lists.”

– Eric Freeman and David Gelernter: Lifestreams Project Home Page, Yale University, Mid 1990s

Time Posted will become a much more prominent search filter, especially combined with other social criteria such as who amongst your friends has read the same piece of content. The analytics of the everyday, especially those influenced by designers like Nicholas Felton, who inspired much of the early work on Foursquare before becoming the lead experience designer for Facebook’s Timeline, will become a much sought after commodity for advertisers, as they attempt to own social search. If you own all the social data about your potential target audience, you can spend your dollars wiser, and most importantly, finally put your ad in the right place at the right time, regardless of platform or device. This level of precise placement will become a true holy grail moment for the advertising industry, and in many ways might save it.Lifestreams have the capacity to create beautiful, visual online experiences, the beginnings of which we’re seeing with apps such as Path or Oink, but the main point of data capture will continue to be smartphones, just as they are today. This is why apps like these are mobile first, desktop a very distant second (anyone who links from Twitter to a Path update will be seeing this happen). That’s not to say the desktop has no role in this, I believe it’s where the archives will live, and where search will happen, but it’s not where the real-time content will live and breathe.

But what we’re seeing here is a tipping point in the evolution of social media and online information in general. A moment where the platforms will grow up, move away from pages, and the importance of maintaining and growing a rich ecosystem of amazing content will be the way to grow a lifestream into a life business. What does your business’ lifestream look like right now?

If the idea becomes about having a stronger presence in the stream itself, especially given the speed at which it’s flowing, and considering that what you share is going to show up inside of many different types of streams based on the recipient’s personal network, how do you go about working with that? Om Malik characterizes the problem as ‘sharing better’ as a way of overcoming the ‘problem of plenty’ inherent in the stream, but I think it’s more than that. It’s a fundamental shift away from the hub and spoke model of ‘conversion’ so rampant within online marketing in the real estate industry, where now, instead of social platforms being viewed as spokes ultimately driving people back into your site itself, the spokes are now hubs. Indeed, if the page format is under review, there’s no more spokes at all.

Opportunities to bring users into your ecosystem and provide them incredible, contextually-specific experiences around the kind of content, and what they’re doing right now are blossoming online. In the stream there’s no more hub and spoke, there’s just context specific hubs, that introduce and nimbly optimize the journey ‘through’ your information, rather than an approach with a defined ‘conversion’ destination. The longer that journey, the more powerful it can become, and the more we think of our current series of spokes more like inter-related, non-linear hubs, the more powerful they’ll become too.


Introducing Facebook Timeline – Video

If you buy into the idea that the customer, wherever they are in the real estate process, really just seeks magical, helpful, stress-free experiences, especially online, then the idea of creating these relevant paths through your content, starting with the stream becomes a critical approach (especially to being found or remaining visible), and the longer we can make that experience relevant, fun and meaningful for them during their time with us in the stream, the better. The destination (or hub) really just becomes how long they choose to spend with us in the stream of information being pushed at them throughout the day.

The more meaningful the content you choose to share, the longer they will spend with you, and the more you can begin the slow process of ‘owning’ content areas within the stream.

There are a few bright spots within the online real estate community where this is happening, but they are very much in their minority right now, and the hub and spoke / destination model is still too prevalent for this to have fully taken hold… yet. There’s some that are exclusively owning content about their markets for example, but I think it needs to be wider than just a strategy of ‘going local’. Take my discussion here as a call to arms to adopt the stream, and move away from thinking that the only way you can ‘convert’ is by having people on your own site at the bottom of the funnel. You now have hundreds of different opportunities to convert all over the web, depending on the streams you wish to dip in to. If everything simply becomes a hub that leads to other hubs in a more linear, contextually appropriate fashion than ‘hub and spoke’, then each time they interact with you, wherever that is, there’s a multitude of ways you can help.

Importantly, it’s key to give up on the idea of mastering the stream. There’s simply too much and it flows too fast. We’ll never really be able to get a clear sense of the whole platform, for example with Twitter, although data visualizations, as I described above in reference to lifestreams, are becoming incredibly valuable to marketers as they give a concrete sense of intent, and allow us to create predictive modeling on what will happen in both the short and long term future (this is why the rise of the infographic is happening – they aggregate data into visual forms that make complex ‘big data’ ideas digestible and fun). It’s more than just search data, it’s capturing real-time conversations at scale, the insight from which tells us far more about what people really react to than ever before. It’s an incredibly exciting time in which to live.

So what does this mean for the real estate industry?

It means that the idea that conversion can only happen on your own site is a myth. It means that putting the customer in the center of a hub-based experience and providing them with magical experiences along paths into other things you do, is a technique for circumventing the destination problem of page-driven sites. It means storytelling is the most shareable, visible thing you can do.

It means that your presence within the stream has never been more important.

 

Further Reading:

Om Malik: ‘Why Bit.ly Will Upstage Digg’ (GigaOm, March 2009)

Om Malik: How Internet Content Distribution & Discovery Are Changing’ (GigaOm, May 2009)

Erick Schonfeld: ‘Mining The Thought Stream’ (Techcrunch, February 2009)

Erick Schnofeld: ‘Jump Into The Stream’ (Techcrunch, May 2009)

Dave Winer:What Is A ‘River Of News’ Style Aggregator?’ (Really Simple Syndication, October 2005)