I finally found some time to read through the “The Year the Stream Crested” article by Alexis Madrigal and some of the related conversations. I think shortest summary is that simple streams don’t work well for a lot of use cases. Since we’ve been doing enterprise social solutions with streams for a long time, this isn’t a surprising revelation for me.
The biggest reason that streams fall short is that they are just lists of items with the newest ones on top. This is great if your use case is seeing what’s current right now and either (1) the number of things happening is not so huge that you will be able to see everything whenever you look or (2) you don’t care about what you miss – your use case is only to see what’s going on right now.
But the trick is that, especially in the enterprise, there are lots of use cases where you’re trying to do real work with a stream and you care a lot about missing particular items. If you have a lot of people trying to use a stream to radiate information and connect, sometimes this comes across as noise to people who are trying to do concrete tasks. When you combine all these updates into a single stream, it can be easy to frustrate users. As soon as you get enough new items entering a single stream so that a user can’t get through all of them, you need to move beyond the notion of just arranging things in reverse chronological order.
Really, at this point, the issue isn’t even about streams. When you have too many items to read, you need some help from the system. With email, some users set up complex rules to sort and prioritize (and you can see Gmail doing some of this automatically now with the tabs). Facebook organizes content automatically by how engaging they think the posts will be. Many platforms have ways to create specific views or filters, so that you have a better chance of seeing the things that matter (We have done this for a while with our Lookout interface - see the image below - including letting companies create default filters.) Basically every platform has a notion of notifications or alerts for the things that are very important. When you really look at a lot of these platforms, the reverse chronological ordering of things in a vertical stack (a “stream”) is actually not the primary user experience any more. My Google+ screen is a whole bunch of boxes, and I don’t actually know how they are organized.
This work is far from over in both consumer and enterprise systems. We’re currently working on our next generation of products with the simple goal of making work better. We’re looking at how we can both make people more productive and help them to be more engaged. We’re fascinated by how the data in these systems can lead to smarter decisions. We’re looking at how to give users context that matches their use case and what kinds of behaviors to put in place that match those contexts. We’ll have more details to show early next year, but we’re constantly experimenting and testing assumptions about how people really get value from enterprise social systems.
I’m really happy that Alexis wrote his article. It helped to crystalize some of the concepts that we’ve been observing. From our point of view, it seems that the stream had crested well before 2013. As we continue to progress through 2014, we see new terrain on the horizon. We’ll still have streams, but they will be smart enough to let users really work in context. And hopefully with enough intelligence and context, the next generation of social streams will not crest anytime soon.