The Web Stream Was Designed for Information Underload

Readers here will have been following my discussion of the use of the Stream as a guiding metaphor for the web. The Stream has its roots in conversation. It organizes communication as a string of sequential events. This is opposed to the Garden, which has its roots in literary culture, and organizes knowledge spatially, as a sort of knowledge map.

Some technologies have a very clear bias. Email, with its inbox and explicit replies, is very stream-driven. HyperCard, with its multiple paths and web of references was very garden. The web is an unusual beast, having been conceived as a garden technology (a hypertext network of documents) onto which a stream model has been grafted and is now the dominant paradigm (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, everything).

I’ve mentioned that the earliest streams appeared on the web very soon after the web’s inception. The first example, in fact, is probably the NSCA’s What’s New page.


The page shows a simple but powerful idea. It’s a simple web page, but when new content was found on the web (generally by virtue of a new server coming online) the new info was added to the top of the page. This model is doubly powerful because so many people set the What’s New page as their home page. Later, link bloggers and others would follow this pattern. In the mid-aughts Twitter, Facebook, and others would adopt this as their dominant paradigm for presentation of information, and that’s how we get here.

What occurred to me this morning was that this technique was originally designed not for information overload, but information underload. The problem that NCSA was dealing with, in part (besides lack of a search engine at that time), was that if you went out on the web each day it would seem relatively unchanged and static. There really wasn’t much to do. Channeling this activity in this “What’s New” way helped because if this information was in a directory structure instead you might never see the new stuff at all.

If you look at a number of other prominent streams, from early link blogging to the first Facebook feeds, you see this pattern repeat itself. Streams are born not because people are overloaded with good choices of things to read but because people perceive a paucity of information. Without the stream there is nothing to read.

Over time, that information grows, and the stream becomes less about discovery and more about curation, whether that curation is human or algorithmic.

I don’t really know what to do with this insight, but just thought I’d note it.

3 thoughts on “The Web Stream Was Designed for Information Underload

  1. Thanks for this post Mike. It really made me think (in a jumbled way). I thought about how the web developed and (in parallel?) were developing email and bulletin boards. So the early web was a garden and the email appeared as a stream but bulletin boards were stream and garden (searchable, organised within some sort of structure but presented as a stream).
    Then I thought about how communication arrived at the web (virtual communities and bulletin boards) and I turned to the warm, familiar concept from Wenger’s CoP work – one of his dualities, participation and reification (here are some thoughts from a couple of years ago – scroll past video tho it’s cute Maybe it’s sometimes useful to think of garden and stream as a duality that can co-produce and relate to each other.

    • I absolutely think it’s about co-production. We require some way to let us know what is immediately important and speaking with a common ongoing context (as in conversation) is more efficient. People take digs on email, but email gets used because it’s essential for some sorts of conversation. Bulletin boards and forums too. And the flip side of the inhospitable nature of the stream etc. is that for in-group it builds a sense of belonging, which is why we all got on twitter last night in the US to commiserate about our national shame. I needed that. I don’t want to kill it.

      I love Wenger’s CoP framework, and will check out the link. In my opinion bringing CoP work into a conversation usually elevates it.

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