Remembering To Forget
Customer Relationship Metamorphosis

Living In Streams


This presentation, about information flow through networked media by Danah Boyd at the Web 2.0 Expo, is so rich with challenging thinking it's difficult to know where to start. The best place is probably to go read it yourself, but I'm writing it up here if for no other reason than to help me get my head around some of the big ideas it contains (it's difficult to do it justice so forgive me if I paraphrase or quote directly more than I usually would).

So, we all know and appreciate how ubiquitous information is whether it's professionally produced, user-generated, social content, 'unsocial' content, news, entertainment, useful information, or useless information. Content, and content streams are everywhere. What Danah talks about is the resultant restructuring of the ways in which information flows in society. She talk about the concept of being "in-flow" with streams of information - a situation that is not so much about perfect attention as it is about being aligned with information:

"The goal is not to be a passive consumer of information or to simply tune in when the time is right, but rather to live in a world where information is everywhere. To be peripherally aware of information as it flows by, grabbing it at the right moment when it is most relevant and valuable, entertaining or insightful. Living with, in, and around information."

She goes on to identify four core issues...

1. Democratisation:

Danah argues that whilst the switch from models that were all about distribution to ones that are all about attention is disruptive, it is far from democratising (as many assume). Anyone can contribute information into the stream, but attention is not divided equally: "Opening up access to the structures of distribution is not democratizing when distribution is no longer the organizing function."

2. Stimulation:

People naturally veer towards content that triggers a reaction or an emotional response - that which stimulates, provokes, delights, entertains, excites - when this is not necessarily the 'best' or most informative content: "If we're not careful, we're going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity. We'll find ourselves consuming content that is least beneficial for ourselves or society as a whole".

3. Homophily:

People like people, but naturally connect to others like themselves. Whilst this can be extremely productive, it can also make it easy not to discover different perspectives and act to reinforce social divisions, since a relatively small proportion of people seek out opinions and ideas from outside of their own cultures: "Information can and does flow in ways that create and reinforce social divides. Democratic philosophy depends on shared informational structures, but the combination of self-segmentation and networked information flow means that we lose the common rhetorical ground through which we can converse".

4. Power:

Just as attention is not inherently democratised in a networked world, neither is power, when power is defined as being able to command attention, influence, and broker information. In the old broadcast model, it is easy to understand that power and profit resided with those who controlled the means of distribution but when that means is shared, there is an assumption that the profit goes to the creators: "This is not what's happening. Distribution today is making people aware that they can come and get something, but those who get access to people's attention are still a small, privileged few. Instead, what we're seeing a new type of information broker emerge".

By way of conclusion, Danah highlights some key transformational trends in the information ecosystem:

1. Information spaces getting more niche: "Successful businesses will not be everything to everyone...Instead, they will play a meaningful role to a cohort of committed consumers who give their attention to them because of their relevance".

2. The need to develop a greater understanding of the role of context, popularity and reputation. There are no destinations in the networked era so it will not be about creating distinct destinations around topics - in content streams we consume news alongside gossip alongside status updates - so content producers will not dictate cultural norms by simply making their content available. Instead, they are accountable to those who are trafficking content and need to 'live' in the streams, producing and consuming alongside their 'customers', to better understand, be more relevant, and find ways in which "content can be surfaced in context, regardless of where it resides"

3. The need for further technological innovation. Tools that make it easier for people to segment, reorganise and recontextualise relevant content wherever they are and whatever they're doing. Tools that: "allow them to get into flow, that allow them to live inside information structures wherever they are, whatever they're doing. The tools that allow them to easily grab what they need and stay peripherally aware without feeling overwhelmed".

4. New models. The inherent difficulty with advertising is that reaching information flow is not about being interupted, and so advertising does not work when it's part of the flow itself.

I agree with Danah on her closing point, which is to say that it's important not to get all utopian or dystopian about it, but instead to recognise what changes and what stays the same. And for me it's always important to recognise that video generally doesn't kill the radio star. But there are several things which I'd pick out as most important to me:- the significance of the changing role of contexts; the implications for participative and non-participative storytelling (which is why David and Marcus's 'streamtelling' is so interesting); and how, once objects become properly informationally connected and part of the stream, the game will change again. To re-use an apt quote from Russell Davies:

“All this web stuff is going to look like a picnic compared to the horrors that will be dealt to the agency and media businesses when every product has a communications channel built right in.”
Danah's full script is here. Go read it.
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