The internet is an endless series of information waterfalls--real-time data streams--waiting to be organized. At least, that's Flow founder Eric Alterman believes. He's betting big on a new platform he's creating that will allow people to exchange real-time data in almost any realm of digital existence.
People are beginning to see the world in streams, says Alterman about the rise perpetually updated blogs and social networks. Slowly what's being disrupted are traditional web pages. There's good reason for that. One is that people are beginning to find [that it's] most efficient to scroll down and see what's most recent.
Alterman is building a platform for what he calls contextual streams, or flows. Flows are never-ending real-time streams of data, much like the news feed of your favorite social network. He believes that flows will help people consume curated information more easily. Flows can be created on nearly any subject, whether it's medical research, rental properties or a company's private sales data.
Here's the difference a flow and a social network news feed: Flows are defined by two fields. First, the visibility of a flow must be decided. That means choosing who can contribute information to the flow and who is able to see it. The second part is deciding which dynamic fields are pertinent to the flow. In laymen's term, that means that numerical data, complicated functions, graphs, business files and more can be input into a flow. Unlike social networks, flows are able to handle dynamic input data. The dynamic nature of a flow sets it apart from the text-, video- and photo-based nature of a social network stream.
By analogy, ABC, CBS and the other major networks used to program everything on television, says Alterman referencing the age-old domination of T.V. airwaves by just a few companies. And then cable came and disrupted [T.V.] by adding context.
To me, the social networks are the same, he says furthering his point about the major television networks spreading themselves too thin and the inevitable rise of specifically targeted cable channels such as The Food Network. As mediums mature, they gain more context.
Flow currently owns two domain spaces, though the platform is considered the same. iFlow.com is the site used for consumers that would like to view contextual streams. Flow.net is the developer site, where people can go to build off of various flows. The company hopes to use both sides of the platform--the consumer-facing and the computer-facing sites--to create a data exchange marketplace.
Wall Street doesn't own all the stock in the world, says Alterman. It's where buyer and seller meet. In a similar manner, Alterman hopes to create a data exchange out of the tools that Flow will provide.
If you're having trouble picturing what this futuristic data exchange will look like, you're not alone. The company is still in its infancy, and the nine employees currently working for Flow have been overloaded with work as they try to build this complicated information marketplace. Flow is gaining attention quickly, however, and the company may soon move from its small office in DUMBO.
It's an information world, says Alterman. How can we make it so that buyer and seller meet.
The benefits of Flow to consumers is evident: The better that information is organized and made available, the better that people can make decisions about consumption. For enterprises, the interest is slightly less evident, though the benefits remain just as powerful. Consider your primary communication tool at work, whether it's email or instant messaging. Now consider how much more productive it could be to have everyone tuned into a flow, with pertinent information updating in real-time. Conversations and collaboration would take place much more fluidly and easily.
Since many large corporations are logging information in each of its divisions--whether it's for marketing, human resources, IT, or product management--large companies are in need of a better way to share information on the fly. Furthermore, if that company is a multi-national corporation, rarely is there real-time collaboration between separate parts of the world on specific data points. For example, movie production companies may be able to share information between each of the many divisions working on a project, and they'd be able to do so in real-time.
Alterman envisions a world in which there's more real-time sharing within a large company as well as among like-minded people. He believes that things should be shared without much thought or effort. That's why he's in New York. New York is rich in information, he says. It's where information is most vastly moving.
Whether Alterman's dream of turning Water Street in Dumbo into the Wall Street of information will be determined over the fullness of time. It's a good sign, however, that in 18 quick months, Flow has outgrown their 500-square-foot office. The company is currently increasing its staff at a rate of 10 percent per month. Now it just need the rest of the world to wake up and smell the coffee. The world will be organized in contextual streams, says Alterman. Not just in my social group.