According to Kevin Marks of BT, we should be thinking of the web these days as following a ‘Flow Past’ logic, as opposed to the more popular ‘real time web’. According to Marks
We don’t all see the same flow … it is mediated by the people we choose to pay attention to
This prompted an extremely embarrassing debate from self-styled web philosophers, with someone saying
“Flow past” is still a linear, old-paradigm mindset, compared to what the mind wants … which is total immersion in all dimensions simultaneously
And someone else claiming
It is impossible for me to be upset with Kevin, but this … is the Web of Flow that I have been preaching for years, and he doesn’t mention it.
Whatevers. In any case, all of these conversations about the best heuristic metaphor for the intertubes point toward something big and important that has changed in the way we behave online. New platforms and features being widely adopted this year do, in fact, ‘flow’: Twitter, Facebook News Feeds, Google Wave, even RSS blog feeds, and plenty of others.
I like the Flow Past Web (FPW) metaphor because it exactly reflects my own experience over the past year. I have found myself less and less searching for pages, and more and more relying on the content that flows to me through Twitter, Facebook, Google Reader, and Digg. What I do online is less about what I can find through search, but is instead mediated through the people I choose to follow.
This might seem like a hopelessly esoteric discussion for epic nerds, but it actually has some big implications for the businesses of online publishers. The idea of the FPW is a decisive move beyond the ‘page’ metaphor, where the internet is seen as essentially a series of publications in which the user jumps from one to the other through search. In so doing, this represents a huge challenge to online publishers, whose content delivery business model is very much wedded to the ‘page’ metaphor. That is, getting visitors to your destination pages, and then serving them with lots of ad impressions. And publishers thinking of paywalls are even more invested in the ‘page’ internet, as you need consumers to be consuming your content within your walled environment, rather than on facebook.
This is (one of the) biggest issues facing publishers online. All the talk in the publishing industry is about boosting engagement, boosting loyalty and perhaps even having people pay to read. In other words, driving people to the site, keeping them there and getting them to come back. Meanwhile, consumer preference is moving away from this kind of deep, direct engagement with content providers, and towards engagement with each other, with socially-mediated content helping to facilitate that.
So how can publishers adapt to the FPW? Well … here’s a couple of ways:
1. Facebook Connect. One of the easiest ways for content producers to insert themselves into the Flow is adopting Facebook Connect, something the Economist has already flagged up as a key part of their strategy. Users can log into the site using their Facebook identity, have discussions, post comments, and most importantly, share links directly through their News Feed, pushing content directly to their friends. As FB is currently the biggest net destination (flow mediators?) in the UK, with an amazing 26 minutes time on site every month, this gives publishers some opportunity to leverage.
2. Twitter headline feeds and encourage traffic and retweets. Or better yet, Twittering journalists who Tweet their new stories. David Mitchell and Charlie Brooker both do this for their columns in the Guardian. It drives readers and retweets, but it also leads to direct discussion and interaction with their publics, which is far, far more engaging and fun than just reading a webpage and leaving a comment.
3. Living Stories. An initiative from Google described as “an experiment in presenting news, one designed specifically for the online environment.” Essentially, it involves collating new content on a particular subject in one place, which is continually updated: like a blog or an RSS reader. Living Stories re-organises newspaper content into a more Flow-friendly formulation. The benefits are that you leverage newspaper’s point of difference with the rest of the web – expertise – by creating a single, authoritative feed where people can receive the best news and comment on a particular issue.
The New York Times and Washington Post are partnering with Google on the project. I’ve just read through the NYT’s coverage of healthcare kerfuffle, and I have to say it’s the best and clearest thing I’ve seen on the subject. Give it a go: it just makes sense.
(And finally, here’s how not to do it. Thinking about the Flow Past Web has helped crystallise exactly what doesn’t sit right in News Int’s approach: building a standalone social network for readers doesn’t engage with the Flow, it bypasses it and tries to create its own Flow, driven by publishers not by the social graph. I believe the phrase is Epic Fail)