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The Stream as a Guiding Metaphor

Being a child of the 80s I can recall a time before the internet permeated my entire reading experience. It was a happy accident for me and my career when I was able to access the internet on a daily bases.

Before the internet, Wired came once a month. When I had enough money I’d buy 2600 (it’s hard to convince parents to subscribe to a “hackers” quarterly). Between publications, I’d dwell on the information. It stayed with me. These publications and a mixture of sci-fi primed me for the internet. It’s not like I was destitute, but I didn’t have a ton of access to technical topics.

This was pre-stream. I had a scarcity of information, but it meant a lot to me.

Post internet exposure, I had sources of information that updated intra-daily. Slashdot, Kuro5hin were my go to. The onslaught fed my desire for information. At the same time it diminished how long I spent thinking about any single thing.

This was post-stream. I had an abundance of information, but it decayed quickly.

Riding the post stream abundance was my default activity for many years. I moved on from Slashdot to Del.icio.us, then Hacker News. My stream continued to grow with RSS and Social Media.

This worked out well for me. Learning something new is intoxicating and at times I’d go deep. The beginning of my career was hacking on early versions of PHP-Nuke and building sites using Python and Django. All of them I found via the abundance of information, and then organically transitioned to using them.

I was able to ride that wave for a long time. Learn new thing X, incorporate it, get better, rinse repeat.

At some point though, I wanted more then using and incorporating. I wanted to master something. I wanted to focus on long lasting value.

That’s when the abundance and the decay were no longer paying off.

Around this time. I read an article “2013: The Year ‘the Stream’ Crested” by Alexis Madrigal 1. It bundles together a bunch of intriguing ideas. I like this quote in particular:

The great irony is that we got what we wanted from the stream: a way to read and watch outside the editorial control of editors, old Yahoo-style cataloging, and Google bots. But when the order of the media cosmos was annihilated, freedom did not rush into the vacuum, but an emergent order with its own logic. We discovered that the stream introduced its own kinds of compulsions and controls. Faster! More! Faster! More! Faster! More!

This post reflected my personal experience. I was seen!

Besides perfectly describing an experience, it pointed to possible solutions to manage the abundance and decay of the stream. Specifically another post: “Stock and Flow” by Robin Sloan 2.

Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that reminds people you exist. Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.

It occurred to me at the time that the flow is going to flow. You can’t fight it. You have to step out of it, as Frank Chimero says in “The Anthologists” 3 4:

How do you balance the stream’s relentless push forward? You circle around, and step back into your own footprints. You find familiar places, look again, and pull the good things out of the past’s abyss.

That’s an interesting tool to use. The stream is gonna stream, flow is gonna flow. Don’t fight it. This applies way outside of the feed as far as I can tell. E-mail, Slack, twitter, code reviews, etc. That’s all “stream”.

Stock though, that’s the tricky one. I think stepping out of the flow is a good start. Deliberate reflection is another.

Overtime, maybe you use Stock to change the flow around you.

  1. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/12/2013-the-year-the-stream-crested/282202/ ↩︎

  2. http://snarkmarket.com/2010/4890 ↩︎

  3. https://web.archive.org/web/20141008003239/http://frankchimero.com/blog/the-anthologists/ ↩︎

  4. I couldn’t find this article listed on Chimero’s site anywhere. Something that was “stock” to me was gone. I had to literally pull this article out of the abyss. Furthermore it was posts like this that really prompted me archive the things I enjoyed. ↩︎