Boris Mann

Open Source. Community. Decentralized Web. Building dev tools at Fission. Cooks & eats.


Flow-based organizations can grow an archive with microblogging

My friend James at AdHack introduced me to the concept of Archive vs. Flow:

The web works in two ’states’ (for lack of a better word): flow and archive.

  • Flow: all the new content coming onto the web and its parsing, aggregation, recombination, etc. For short, consider this the new stuff. New blog posts. New Twitter tweets. New YouTube videos. Access is by RSS, browsing, email, IM, alerts.
  • Archive: all the content that’s no longer new but is still accessible and indexed for retrieval. For short, this is the culmination of not-new stuff. Old stuff organized and accessed by tags, categories, searches and links.

Most folks only get the archive aspect of the web once they’ve used it and managed websites for a number of years. It’s a little counterintuitive and different from all other media types.

Flow is short-term candy to fire people up. Archive is long-term value that ages and improves over time.

Once I started thinking like this - about content and experiences as Archive or Flow (or a combination, of course, if done right), it has permeated my thinking.

More recently, I've been thinking about organizations and their activities using this same model. And how many traditional, broadcast media organizations are all flow. They don't even *think* about archive. And this is epitomized by what I think is the very basis for all web-based Archive concepts: the permalink. If your piece of content, your experience, does not have a permalink, there is precious little I can do with it (including find my way back to it).

Two examples of media organization that are pretty much all flow: TV and radio (especially the news and/or local versions). Neither have permalinks in their "native" format. Their companion websites are slowly evolving some archive functionality, but it's not very good. Even worse, their websites do a bad job of showcasing the inherent flow nature of the organization and the content they serve.

Hulu is an example of a TV-related website that is starting to provide a great archive functionality. More like this, please!

Other TV sites do have some clips after the fact, and ways to link to them, but these are divorced from the native medium. You have to remember to go back to the website, somehow find the piece of content you were watching, and even then you might not have a permalink (think hour long clips, mini clips, or mystery meat javascript navigation that doesn't let you link directly to items).

Radio is the example that I think is:

  1. in the most dire need of showcasing the "flow" nature of their content on their companion website and
  2. has done a terrible job of doing anything to grow an archive that, as James says, has "long-term value that ages and improves over time".

A counter example is actually CBC Radio - they're growing an archive at a furious rate for most of their shows in the form of podcasts and interactive shows like Spark that blur radio and web and interactivity. But, I think the local "news" radio doesn't do nearly as good a job of moving from flow to archive on the web, arguably where it is the most important. The produced "shows" just happen to currently be broadcast over the air - but they are discrete chunks of content that can probably be better delivered via the web.

Last.FM is an example of a site that is tangentially related to this discussion, at least as regards music. They turn your "flow" of music listening into your own personal archive. And it grows richer over time. Radio doesn't do this for you, even on their own website. You can't favourite a song, or share it, or tell other people to tune in to a particular frequency RIGHT NOW if they want to hear it. It probably should.

So, how do flow-based organizations grow an archive? I think the prime example of native flow tools on the web today are all based on microblogging: Twitter, Friendfeed, and Facebook status messages. By looking at these native flow tools, media organizations can do several things at the same time:

  1. Leverage the flow based, real time nature of their content and business - every item from their native medium becomes the basis for a microblog post coming from their own brand.
  2. Build interactivity around this web-based flow version. What if your radio or TV station tweeted back at you? What if it used hashtag #traffic? or #news? or #contest?
  3. Use all of this activity to automatically create permalinks which can be shared, rated, commented and in general, grow value over time. Since every microblog has a permalink "for free", there's the basis of your archive. Layer on other tools to remix, analyze, mashup, and visualize the depth of your archive over time.

Oh, and you probably shouldn't cede all of this great archive content exclusively to Twitter or any other third party network. Like cross-posting to YouTube, you definitely want to reach the audience on Twitter (and Facebook, and so on), but you first want to post to your "own" microblog. How do you get your microblogging network? I'm glad you asked!

There are a number of tools evolving to support the Open Micro Blogging standard that will let a number of different sites all talk to each other. This means that platforms like Drupal or WordPress can easily support implementations of microblogging.

More simply, is an open source project designed to be a turnkey microblogging platform. The biggest single example is the site, and a good example of a community using it is Leo Laporte's TWiT Army. Evan Prodromou of / recently shared with me that he's also working on a fully hosted option. Watch to keep up to date with that option.

Much of the growth of the web has come from its Archive nature, rooted in the permalink and being able to instantly get back to a single piece of content. Google and Wikipedia are two prime examples of this. Flow and real time are more recent entrants, but they are making the web grow even faster [1].

How is your flow based organization going to participate in both?

[1] Blogging is perhaps unique in that it embodies both Archive and Flow at the same time. We just never noticed its Flow aspect because interaction and "newness" spread out over hours or days rather than the minutes or seconds we can visually see with microblogging.