Once upon a time, the metaphor that best represented the organization of the internet was the “web”. A loosely organized topology of nodes and connections.
But social media - first Facebook, then Twitter - shifted the metaphor in the direction of “the stream”. As the internet grew, the topology became overwhelming and we became accustomed to the idea of information, both trivial and germane, flowing past us like a stream.
The problem with the stream is that it has no end. Humans like tidy narratives and consistent explanations. We like to stand back and admire our work. We like to sign our name on something with pride. But the stream moves on.
There is no sense of accomplishment on Twitter or Facebook. You squeezed something clever, snarky, or pithy into 140 characters? Great. Now watch the stream carry it away.
I’m reminded of Marge Piercy’s poem “To be of use” in which the poet talks about the value of real work:
“The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.”
In Alexis Madrigal’s seminal article, “2013: The Year ‘the Stream’ Crested” published in The Atlantic, he talks about the “permanently unfinished” nature of the stream. Because the stream is perpetually unfinished it gives us all a slight anxiety about what we’re missing as the stream flows by. What if someone said something interesting?
We need more of what Madrigal calls “edges”. Edges are the boundaries of content. Edges are the final brush strokes on a painting. Or the last note in composition.
“There is a melancholy to the infinite scroll.”
More and more people are getting out of the water. The stream is too fast. It’s overflowing its banks. They’ve tried to help by making little tributaries. But the rivulets just feed us over-optimized stuff. We need writing and sharing that has depth and edges.
Time to dam the stream.