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Once again, the Internet is shifting before our eyes. Information is increasingly being distributed and presented in real-time streams instead of dedicated Web pages. The shift is palpable, even if it is only in its early stages. Web companies large and small are embracing this stream. It is not just Twitter. It is Facebook and Friendfeed and AOL and Digg and Tweetdeck and Seesmic Desktop and Techmeme and Tweetmeme and Ustream and Qik and Kyte and blogs and Google Reader. The stream is winding its way throughout the Web and organizing it by nowness.

This real-time stream has been building for a while. It began with RSS, but is now so much stronger and swifter, encompassing not just periodic news and musings but constant communication, status updates, instantly shared thoughts, photos, and videos.

What does this mean for how we will come to consume information? John Borthwick from Betaworks has identified the real-time Web as a key investment opportunity (Betaworks portfolio companies include Twitter, bit.ly, Tweetdeck, Chartbeat, and Tumblr). He admits he and other investors are still feeling in the dark, but he describes the shift he is trying to capitalize on this way in a post titled “Distribution . . . now”:

First and foremost what emerges out of this is a new metaphor — think streams vs. pages.

In the initial design of the web reading and writing (editing) were given equal consideration – yet for fifteen years the primary metaphor of the web has been pages and reading. The metaphors we used to circumscribe this possibility set were mostly drawn from books and architecture (pages, browser, sites etc.). Most of these metaphors were static and one way. The steam metaphor is fundamentally different. It’s dynamic, it doesn’t live very well within a page and still very much evolving.

A stream. A real time, flowing, dynamic stream of information — that we as users and participants can dip in and out of and whether we participate in them or simply observe we are a part of this flow.

In a sense, he is trying to rationalize his investment strategy. But if he is correct, the shift from pages to ever-widening eddies of information will have a dramatic downstream impact on many Web businesses, especially media businesses. This rising stream has the potential to fundamentally change the contours of media distribution on the Web. Large destination sites like Yahoo and AOL, already weakened as distribution hubs by search and social networks, now face the prospect of becoming completely bypassed. No wonder AOL is sticking the stream in every part of its service, from its homepage to Bebo to AIM. (Yahoo is grappling with the emergence of the stream as well, but so far still thinks it can hold onto its place as a central traffic and distribution hub).

The stream does not replace Web pages or search, for that matter, but it has the potential to completely transform them. Already, we are seeing Web pages adopt the stream as a new user-interface. Web pages are increasingly being designed as places to present the most relevant streams of information. And with streams of data spreading everywhere, search actually becomes more important than ever as a navigation tool. As Borthwick points out:

Traffic isn’t distributed evenly in this new world. All of a sudden crowds can show up on your site.

Traffic occurs in bursts, depending on what people are paying attention to at that second across a variety of services. Someone might notice an obscure blog post on Twitter, where it starts spreading, then it moves to FriendFeed and Facebook and desktop stream readers such as Tweetdeck or Seesmic desktop and before you know it, a hundred thousand people are reading that article. The stream creates a different form of syndication which cannot be licensed and cannot be controlled.

The problem, more than ever before, becomes one of information overload. How do you keep from drowning in the deluge? Borthwick suggests letting go of the notion that you can ever master the stream, even just your own personal data stream of friend’s Tweets, updates, blog posts, Flickr photos, YouTube video finds and so on:

This isn’t an inbox we have to empty, or a page we have to get to the bottom of — its a flow of data that we can dip into at will but we can’t attempt to gain an all encompassing view of it.

So jump into the stream and let it carry you away. Or you can stand timidly on the banks until everyone else around you has already taken the plunge.

(More stream reading: Nova Spivack and Om Malik. Photo credit: Flickr/Justin Lowery)

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