Times Insider

“Stream” can indicate the steady movement of virtually anything, “cacophony” included.

Credit...June Shin

In 1926, a bootlegger arrived home on Christmas Eve to find his wife in the arms of another man. His cheerful expression changed to one of woe; tears streamed down his jowls. He retrieved a revolver from under the tree and fired two shots.

Thankfully, this tragic scene wasn’t real — it was in a film reviewed by Mordaunt Hall, the first staff film critic at The New York Times. Mr. Hall used the word “stream” to indicate a steady flow of liquid, in this case the bootlegger’s tears. “Stream” traditionally refers to a flow or current of water, according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary.

But “stream” can also indicate the steady flow or movement of virtually anything. A Times article from 1970 described a young oboist’s performance at a jazz club as “a relentlessly clamorous stream of cacophony.” It can also mean a continuous succession, as of cars in New York City: “In the evening, taxicabs compete for space with those who enter the traffic stream after having parked at the curbs most of the day,” an article from 1964 stated.

The phrase “stream of consciousness” was used in the 1890s by the psychologist William James; he compared the flow of consciousness to that of a stream. In a literary sense, the phrase denotes a narrative technique whereby a character’s perceptions are revealed as they occur. In a Times review last year of Sarah Moss’s book “The Fell,” the reviewer reflected on the style of prose: Though the characters think in associative, run-on sentences, “there is little of the wild, supple unpredictability for which stream of consciousness was invented.”

Just as water — or, music, or traffic, or one’s inner monologue — flows, so does information in the digital age. A Times technology column in 1997 reported on new “streaming” products, which delivered “video and other types of media to desktop computers via the internet, in a transmission stream that approximates instant playback.” The author wasn’t convinced that streaming had a promising future: “Why these companies care about video on the Net today is one of the industry’s great mysteries,” she wrote.

Now, 20 years later, streaming services are ubiquitous. And streaming a video online is one of the most familiar ways to use the term. (For cord-cutters, The Times offers monthly guides of TV and movies to watch on streaming services.)

And then there is “livestreaming,” transmitting a broadcast in real time. Events may be livestreamed over the internet; Facebook users can “go live” and stream their activities to friends. The Times recently reported on the livestream e-commerce business.

The Times itself sometimes engages in streaming to deliver the news: In January 2021, during the height of the coronavirus, The Times streamed the 59th presidential inauguration, which was largely virtual. The broadcast was accompanied by “real-time analysis and coverage from our reporters.” In September 2022, The Times livestreamed some of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral. It was the first time cameras were allowed into the funeral of a British monarch.

Sarah Diamond manages production for narrated articles. She previously worked at National Geographic Studios.

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