Thoughts on the Real-Time Web

I would not describe myself as a power user of Twitter by any means, but I continue to be fascinated by the amount of energy and time people spend building tools on top of it and generally commenting on how it’s the next next new thing (double nexts were intentional). I do, though, use FriendFeed a fair amount because I like the conversational elements of it and the fact that it has much more visual content (people share pictures, videos, etc – that’s more eye-catching than text). I’ve been thinking a lot about why the real-time web isn’t really working as well for me as I’d like it to and am posting some disjoint thoughts below – feel free to add any comments you have.

So far, I’ve found two really good use cases for Twitter and the real-time web based on the way I like to consume information:

-Following Events – Twitter hashtags are a great way to keep up with the pulse of what’s happening at tech conferences that I can’t attend. It’s way easier for me to follow than liveblogging as it gives me both shorter updates about what’s going on and allows me to easily hear from a wider variety of voices than a single blog can provide.
-Quick pulse of what’s on my friends’ minds – About once or twice a day I’ll see a link that gets retweeted by lots and lots of people I know. That tells me that they’re all reading or at least expressing interest in the content. That’s a good signal to me that I should probably check out whatever it is that they’re passing around.

Aside from those two use cases, I see a few key areas where the latest incarnation of the real-time web isn’t really making my life better, making me more productive, or where I’m having a hard time understanding all of the euphoria:

While the speed with which people can create and publish information continues to increase, I’m gated by my own ability to process information. I only have so many cycles to process new and existing information. While I’m always trying to get better at processing more information more quickly, there’s an upper bound on how fast I can get. Also, I am frequently connected to the Internet but I do log off from time to time. There are lots of real-time web tools that work great if you sit there and babysit them all day, but what about once you’re gone? Or what if something interesting or important happens while you’re away? I’m looking for the real-time web to help me make more sense of the vast streams of information floating around me – increasing the speed of the information coming out of the firehose is interesting but not nearly as useful as helping me prioritize what to read and evaluate first. I don’t necessarily need real-time filters to prioritize information – I’d trade a slower, stronger signal for a weak, fast signal at this point of my usage of the web.

Lots of information is delivered to me in real-time but isn’t really time-sensitive – This is particularly true of the real-time link sharing / re-tweeting use case. Seeing that all of my friends are re-tweeting or sharing a piece of content is a strong signal that it’s important. But that’s not the same as important right this very second. I find that most of the articles I see getting shared on Twitter either started up or end up on Techmeme or some other aggregation service. Seeing them a bit earlier than when they hit my Google Reader is cool but not critical in my information consumption patterns.

I’m not really sure that search is important for ephemeral information – A decent chunk (I’m not willing to hazard a guess) of the information I encounter on the real-time web is ephemeral. Status updates, thoughts, feelings, etc are all really interesting in the moment but can lose relevance over time. Even “breaking news” loses relevance once it’s broken – once a story is broken, I’m more interested in finding the source with the best coverage than I am sticking with the person who broke the story. This makes me wonder whether search is really a big deal for the real-time web. I must be in the minority here because both Google and Twitter seem convinced that search for real-time information is a big opportunity. But I’m having a hard time seeing it. For things that aren’t ephemeral, they can’t hide – they’ll make their way into other places on the web (blogs, websites, structured content that’s easily indexed by search engines, etc). For fluid real-time situations (natural disasters, crises, breaking news, sports, etc), I can see a ton of value in having a real-time window into what’s happening as a story is unfolding.

The one thing about the real-time web that does make sense to me is the disintermediation use case for brands and celebrities. If you’re a celebrity, brand (personal or corporate), or other public figure, there are a lot of people standing between you and the people you’re trying to reach – your own handlers, the media, technology platforms, etc. A lot of real-time web tools allow you to break this dependency in two ways. You don’t need to navigate the maze of people above to reach your constituents or fans (just get them to opt into hearing from you via a less noisy channel than email / print / radio – you know, something like Facebook or Twitter) and you’re not gated by communication caps. If you want to share everything you’re doing, there’s nothing stopping you. The time required to produce and distribute an update is very small. So it’s much easier for brands and celebrities to create a stronger bond with their fans / constituents by cutting out all of the people who stand between them and by sharing the kinds of details and information that has been difficult to surface until now. That’s not a use case that strikes me as being dependent on search. That’s a use case that’s about noiseless, frictionless distribution and communication.

Anyway, that’s a set of fairly disjoint thoughts I have about the real-time web and Twitter. Feel free to leave comments as I love them.

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  • I completely agree that with the rise of real-time feeds the gating factor is no longer access to information but user's ability to process information. I think we are quickly getting to the point of “negative network effects” where the increase of users that you are following or friends with on social networking sites is creating real issues of processing that information that you get to a point where you either decide to be much more selective in adding people or completely abandon the solution due to how overwhelming the information is.

    To solve this we'll need to see tieringfiltering of friends and their communications to ensure that what we personally care about is surfaced and we are no longer overwhelmed by the rest of it. I'm looking forward to this next generation of social networking or layers on top of it.

    Sachin

  • Great post. Thanks for sharing.

  • Sachin,

    Thanks for the comment, man – really appreciate it. Without better filters
    and tools, I have a hard time getting maximum value from the real-time web.

    2009/6/3 Disqus <>