When people come up against the realtime experience, they have one of several fundamental reactions. The first, and most pervasive, is excitement, following almost immediately by mistrust. This is great, followed by How can I keep up with this? Next is bargaining: attempting to manage the flow through a combination of filtering and exclusion, reducing the noise but also in the process the surprise, the What you don’t know or don’t know you know.
Even in that first paragraph, all the elements exist: Realtime? So what. Mistrust – you betcha. Why am I being lectured to? Too many words without sufficient context. Why am I being dropped in the middle of this crap? All real reactions, a sort of gauntlet you’re forced to run to understand something you haven’t yet thought or want to think about. That’s realtime alright.
Before realtime we had the Web page, a nod to the cerebral. Here’s a document, with a title, author, corroborative links, supportive advertising or similar model, and attendant comments, linkbacks, and related archives. RSS came along and added a notification system to an organic information space that lived at the user’s discretion outside the boundaries of the originating sites.
RSS aggregators captured the contours of this refined information in one or more UIs, the river of news popularized by Dave Winer in his seminal Radio application and the 3-pane email views most recently dominated by NewsGator’s FeedDemon and NetNewsWire. When on-demand versions proliferated, Google Reader soon became the default container. It wasn’t until Twitter that the lead changed hands again.
Today, this minute, when information happens, Twitter or some micromessaging stream, delivers the nugget first. Links, which had lost some momentum as RSS spread, regain some of their power to maintain control of the flow from one object to the next. But conversational aggregation has also become a powerful container, from two competing directions.
The first, the Track function in Twitter, allowed realtime conversations to occur between discoverable points. That is, anyone on the Twitter network could monitor a thread of individual tweets, and then, by addressing someone with an @ reply, initiate a one to one conversation. Using Track at both ends on one of the participant’s names, the conversants could continue as long as they directly cited each other or used the mutual tracked name as a kind of conversation tag. Eventually, they could formalize the relationship with mutual follows if necessary.
FriendFeed provided a more formalized alternative, first with threaded conversations and then with topics organized as rooms. Where Twitter conversations could be tracked in realtime via Track and delivered over XMPP in IM clients such as Gmail’s Gchat, FriendFeed was more leisurely delivered as an aggregation not just of Twitter but blogs, images, videos, and other services. As Twitter dropped both IM and Track, its value as a replacement for RSS readers grew along with its huge audience. In effect, Twitter became a universal controller for content, while FriendFeed captured more and more of the comment conversation around the content.
RSS aggregation had become a victim of its own success. Too much interesting content, not enough dynamic discovery of unexpected value, the growing competition from a threatened mainstream media, the quickening pace of the realtimesphere. Like the Web culture it absorbed before, RSS has spawned its conqueror. Realtime’s Darwinian efficiencies present both improvements in information processing and new problems to overcome.
Realtime harnesses social graph characteristics to improve prioritization. Faced with a limited amount of time to choose virtually unlimited resources, human filters outperform algorithms. I’d rather make decisions about how to invest my time based on a combination of what’s going on and what those important to me think important to them, than rely on filtering based on broader popularity, explicit voting, or link ranking.
A small number of Follows combined with Track produces a high degree of coverage on a daily basis. FriendFeed’s new realtime tools let you create imaginary friends to integrate Twitter follows who aren’t active in FriendFeed; Friends Lists let you mold realtime feeds into high value groups. Configuring FriendFeed to output comments to Twitter makes FriendFeed the input client. And we wait for Track, API access to creating imaginary friends, and other tools to filter in and out of FriendFeed’s aggregation services.
Let’s say we get all of these tools in place and Twitter returns Track as some kind of service for users if not competitors. How do we manage this volume of realtime data? With a new kind of media realignment.
- Video becomes a first class Twitter object. Favorite network news such as Olbermann and Maddow create conversational chunks designed to be inserted into Twitter broadcasts and FriendFeed conversations. Since iPhone only supports YouTube, that defines the format.
Tech events adopt similar strategies, microcasting conferences, press Q&A’s, and product releases over chunk channels. Once sufficient industry support is realized, tech companies can provide microstreaming services to customers in their own verticals.
At least one of the record cartel announces a signing policy that offers new and existing artists realtime channels in return for a cut of performance and ancillary rights. Recordings are released first in realtime markets, with relaxed (free) release of concert, rehearsal, and private recordings bundled with the purchase of studio product.
As a condition of this new content distribution model, all microcast content must be made available to all microchannels, and microchannels who carry these materials must agree to support open standards that allow Track in realtime across all channels.
Realtime economics depend on the immutable fact that we don’t have the time for realtime. We need both speed and context, and only our social clouds can provide the self-knowledge necessary to process the flow efficiently. Many of the most valuable information streams are at crossroads where it may well be worth more to sign on to a realtime network with direct control of marketing, merchandising, and publishing. I’d suggest setting up imaginary friends, Friend Lists, and realtime streams from among the talent pool of these industries.