Against the Stream

Thomas Jones

Hossein Derakhshan, a leading Iranian blogger, was imprisoned in Tehran in 2008 for spreading propaganda against the ruling establishment, promoting counter-revolutionary groups and insulting Islamic thought and religious figures. He was pardoned and released last November. He recently wrote a piece about the ways the internet changed – for the worse, in his view – during his time inside. 'Six years was a long time to be in jail, but it’s an entire era online.' The web is dying, to be replaced by the stream:

Today the Stream is digital media’s dominant form of organizing information. It’s in every social network and mobile application. Since I gained my freedom, everywhere I turn I see the Stream. I guess it won’t be too long before we see news websites organize their entire content based on the same principles...

Maybe it’s that text itself is disappearing. After all, the first visitors to the web spent their time online reading web magazines. Then came blogs, then Facebook, then Twitter. Now it’s Facebook videos and Instagram and SnapChat that most people spend their time on. There’s less and less text to read on social networks, and more and more video to watch, more and more images to look at. Are we witnessing a decline of reading on the web in favor of watching and listening?...

The Stream, mobile applications, and moving images: They all show a departure from a books-internet toward a television-internet... The web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.


  • 8 September 2015 at 6:36pm
    Alan Benfield says:
    An excellent piece, Thomas, thanks for the link.

    It chimes nicely with a thought I had some time ago about the Google-isation of everything. The problem with what is served up to us by many websites and apps these days is that increasingly it is determined by an algorithm which is opaque to us and over which we have no control. Often the results are obvious in a thick-eared and blunderingly transparent way (I bought some Young Adult books for my teenage daughter from Amazon last year: ever since then it keeps recommending me the latest vampire/romance/horror/whatever alongside the things I buy myself), but the results are also too often insidious: try looking at the ads which turn up on Facebook or via Google ads links embedded in other pages (e.g. The Guardian). Their relevance can seem uncanny, often creepily so.

    But is it really uncannily like ourselves, or are we just being presented with a regression toward the mean version of ourselves? Some people seem to think that a news feed or app is just a handy newspaper, except that, whereas a real newspaper has editors who make a selection for you, here the app is constantly refining its selection according to what it knows about what you like to read, a sort of personal editor. But equally, such a system will tend, as Hossein Derakhshan says, to limit your view of the world to those things you agree with or are comfortable with.

    To give an example of why this is important, I must take the example of a real newspaper. Here in the Netherlands, I read the NRC Handelsblad. It is what you might refer to as a 'liberal' paper, as opposed to De Volkskrant, which is more overtly left-wing. I like it, however, not because it always provides me with opinions I agree with but because, like good journalism should, it is happy to present a wide range of opinion, even if some of that opinion is anathema to the editors or the average reader of the paper: Geert Wilders has featured in the past, along with many shades of opinion from far-right to far left; Last week they published a piece by Viktor Orbán on his attitude to the refugee crisis (which was probably a good way to demonstrate (a) that he is right that Hungary is in a bad place right now regarding the influx of refugees but also (b) why someone like Viktor Orbán is probably not the person you want to be in charge of the solution to the problem).

    "My own personal editor" is perhaps, in any case, too vague: what we are talking about here is somebody else's interpretation of your desires based upon a sample of choices made by you on a whim and analysed by an algorithm. Is it true that after so many 'likes' Facebook knows all about you? Bullshit.

    What it certainly shows it that the world is in thrall to a group of people who not only consider that your choices on social media define who you are but also presume to define (via their algorithms) what exactly about your choices is important and what they say about you.

    The problem I see with this, apart from the narrowing of vision and awareness identified by Hossein, is twofold: on the one hand, the unwary can be led towards the belief that what social media say about you is who you really are; on the other, politicians and other opinion-formers (or followers) will come to take the results of these flawed and skewed vox populi to reflect the reality of what people really think, which is much more scary.

  • 10 September 2015 at 11:25pm
    Amateur Emigrant says:
    I tend to think that people who are immersed in something overstate the significance of their view from that position. Journalists are consumed with the importance of the mainstream media; bloggers are consumed with the significance of the internet.

    For sure the internet is having an effect on how and what we read, and its pace of development is even leading people scarcely out of their twenties to bemoan the passing of the good old days before streaming video and mobile devices. But that's just another form of golden age-ism. You got your head round things at a given point and change has taken away your comprehensive grip on the medium. That doesn't mean we're off to Hell in a handcart.

    The world is not going to become sub-literate because of YouTube or Tumblr. But the internet is going to continue to offer new ways of getting information or entertaining ourselves. I use the internet a lot, and most of it is reading. I can access more material to read than I ever could in the Dark Ages of print. I read the LRB on my mobile phone. I've said it here before, but social media means I read from sources I never would have looked at before. I can read exactly what the Daily Mail is spewing out to middle England without having to sully myself by buying a copy. That seems like progress to me.

    'The Stream' isn't encouraging me to read less, and I doubt that it's discouraging other intelligent educated people to do so either. I recall the moral panic of the intelligentsia in the days when The Sun was the masses' reading matter of choice. A lot of the readers were only looking at the pictures. Now they can look at the pictures online.

    The advent of mass literacy led to an explosion of printed matter of dubious educational quality. The same thing has happened with the internet. It has evolved from a communications medium for academics into a vehicle for mass entertainment. But that hasn't displaced academic communications. It is simply that millions more people now have access to the medium and it has evolved to cater for all tastes. Just before writing this I watched a hilarious video of dogs failing to catch things. Truly the internet is wonderful.