Irish academic, journalist, and author, John Naughton (@jjn1) wrote yesterday that we ought to forget about the website, the page and the visit. The dominant metaphor for the future of the internet is the time-based stream.

Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan observed that “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror and we march backwards into the future.” Amen, says Naughton. (Amen, I say as to most law firms)

So although the web has changed out of all recognition in two decades, our underlying metaphor for it probably hasn’t changed that much. And this has the downside that we’re effectively blind to what is actually happening, which is that we are moving from a world of sites and visits to one that is increasingly dominated by streams. The guy who articulates this best is a Yale computer scientist named David Gelernter.

The title of his latest essay on the subject – “The End of the Web, Search, and Computer as We Know It” – conveys the basic idea. “The space-based web we currently have will gradually be replaced by a time-based worldstream,” he writes. “This lifestream — a heterogeneous, content-searchable, real-time messaging stream — arrived in the form of blog posts and RSS feeds, Twitter and other chatstreams and Facebook walls and timelines. Its structure represented a shift beyond the ‘flatland known as the desktop’ (where our interfaces ignored the temporal dimension) towards streams, which flow and can therefore serve as a representation of time.

Look at the big movers in the net today. Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and LinkedIn. None are based on websites – corporate or personal. Even LinkedIn is focusing on publishing and sharing initiatives for this year, not pages or sites.

Look at some of the real leaders on the net. Leaders who have strong word of mouth reputations and who have built relationships leading to business – Dave Winer, Charline Li, Guy Kawasaki, Amy Jo Martin, Robert Scoble, Brian Solis, Fred Wilson, Jeremiah Owyang, and Steve Rubel.

None of them used websites to grow their reputation and business. Each of them networked through the net using ‘lifestreams,’ including blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and RSS feeds.

In the fall of 2003, having sold a previous business, I was at cross roads. Go back to practicing law or help lawyers network through the Internet, something I had a gift to do? But how to build a national word of mouth reputation as an authority? How to meet the people across the country?

A website and SEO certainly wouldn’t do it. A blog and accompanying social media did. I’m no superman, by any means, but LexBlog is now blessed with serving over 8,000 lawyers around the world.

When folks in your law firm say we need to update our website before any other Internet initiatives, you ought to scream, ‘Bunk.’ When folks say let’s use blogs and social media as part of our website, tell them ‘You’re all wet.’

Get your lawyers out on Internet time-based streams if you want them to build relationships and grow their reputation. Websites, though needed in simple form, ought to be your rear view mirror when it comes to key initiatives.

Don’t march backwards into the future.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Helmut Schwarzer.