Thinking in Streams and Archives

There are two ways to consume information in the digital era: 1) through a feed and 2) through search. Information I consume through a feed is passive, and information I consume through a search is active.

Facebook and its subsidiaries are feed-friendly, and Google and its subsidiaries are search-friendly. If I’m viewing a video on YouTube, I’ve either made the active decision to search for content, or I’ve made the decision to click on something someone has sent me. On Facebook, I don’t actively consume information unless something screams for my attention.

At their best, a feed is a stream of content and search is an archive of information.

Over the last few years, digital media companies have increasingly focused on how content spreads through feeds rather than search. New Media companies like NowThis News and Al Jazeera’s AJ+ embrace platform constraints. This makes sense: if our audience lives elsewhere, let’s meet them where they are, rather than attempt to bring them back to our own content or webpages. It’s a lot to ask for a click.

Disseminating information through social shares has (for now, at least) won over sharing through search.

While publishing content solely on streams has its merits (we may be seeing the rise of “homeless webpages” after all), it presents two major problems: 1) content creators neglect loyal followers and 2) content creators dismiss the importance of record-keeping and archiving information to newsgathering.

Once a content creator has won me over, what’s in it for me as a consumer besides a subscription or a like? Oftentimes, loyal followers want more and want to feel like they’re in the know. If I want to view an AJ+ video from months ago, where do I go? AJ+ (purposely) has a barebones website.

I argue that as new media companies increasingly shift their focus to newsfeeds, we’re doing ourselves a long-term disservice by not providing deep background for our audience. Where do I go if I want to know more about the history of content, the idea behind a story, or the biographies of content creators?

One approach is to provide background information by linking to other Social Media platforms. Twitter has become the norm in bylines; every content creator has their own personal web portfolio; and fans create wikis on their own. However, this approach puts the burden on the consumer: no archive exists, so users have to search the Internet, on their own, to stitch together deep background.

Another approach is to offer our audience background information on our content through longer, more in-depth “behind-the-scenes” content. Cut Video comes to mind. After releasing their “100 years of beauty” series, they released longer videos that provide deep background. However, video isn’t as conducive to research because it is not as scannable as text. And more importantly, we cannot successfully expect to disseminate information meant for archives through streams.

Interestingly enough, although they’re at odds with one another, Facebook and YouTube work well together to provide visual content creators a place to stream (FB) and a place to store (YouTube).

For digital news companies the focus on streams rather than archives presents a graver problem: how do we keep records and how do we make those records easily accessible? If today’s Facebook plays the role of publisher, and if Facebook purposely hides content our audience dislikes, and if we have a platform-first attitude, does our content actually exist elsewhere?

Jeff Bezos wants the Washington Post to become the “paper of record.” That’s honorable. And funny. Those of us in digital media have to ask ourselves: how do we become “of record” if we have no records?

As we move our content to platforms (which we should do, absolutely), our homepages shouldn’t disappear – they should become “vaults” of archival information.