The Realtime Genie

genie1The realtime lashback has been surprisingly tame given the emotional challenges it presents. FriendFeed’s decision to double down on realtime streaming of text has had several primary effects: increased usage, swarming behavior around live events, and pushback from some who fled Twitter to FriendFeed in search of more contemplative dialogue.

What happens when a realtime conversation is possible? We already know the answer: IM. We are gently queried for permission to engage, and with social contract in hand we answer questions, catch up from where we last left off, and negotiate the outline of our next meeting. Attempts at hanging around on either end are met with increased irritation masked by politeness, until finally a rapid-fire l8r kthxbye cya dance wears out any remaining welcome.

But realtime swarms have new dynamics, not readily understood or guided by agreed-upon ground rules. Where IRCs and attached video chats hew to explicit or implicit boundaries, realtime threads need their own rationale for existence to get much beyond the IM formula. For some, a debate is hung off of a blog post or podcast, with representatives of the pro and con perspectives managing the conversation flow. For others, the “post” is a statement of thesis, a challenge to engage. When oldtimers criticize these threads as nothing new, they’re usually right.

Why, then, are so many of us so energized by this frontier? First, we are tired of RSS, tired of the mediocrity of the good-enough flow of half-facts and pseudo insight. Yes, I’m tired of my own bullshit, but only of my inability to adequately describe what’s in front of us. Normally I expect the pragmatic enterprise crowd to laboriously explain why this is all too early, not ready for prime time, not yet taken in by adults and layered into real tools with ROI dripping from the design.

There’s plenty of that being served up. But this time around the consultants are pulling their punches, careful not to get too negative too early for fear Marc Benioff will build some stupid Twitter rationale into his next marketing blitz. Social media is the front end for cloud computing, and in a time of low employment massaging the social graph is an excellent way of foraging in the workforce for talent. Too conservative, IT matters again. Too aggressive, hard to distinguish an analyst from a blogger.

The cloud manifesto gambit exposed, the platform players were forced out of the lab earlier than expected. Google’s AppEngine launched a preview edition of its Java framework, drawing fire from Sun’s open source guru Simon Phipps for forking with an incomplete toolkit. Similarly, Microsoft is retooling its Azure database interfaces to be less of a toy and more in line with its developer expectations, slowing its progress at a critical stage of the on-demand/on-premises pitch.

Lost in these returns to the marketing wars of lore – Don’t mess with the Java Community Process and Beware the XML Industrial Complex – is the new Black of Open v. Closed. Facebook and Salesforce are proving it doesn’t matter what you bring to the Social Cloud, only what you can make of it. Results are all that matters.

Realtime is now a fact, and as such, the capability transcends the politics and religion of the various participants. New data types are being born that encapsulate partisan showboating and wrap the debate in more pragmatic bursts of micro-conversation. It’s a hybrid of email, IM, and blogging, with the goal moving past branding to setting and maintaining policy. Whichever cloud enables rapid prototyping and deployment of these micro-conversations will have significant momentum as the Twitter noise rages on across the media.

FriendFeed may not be simple or viral in the oldmedia (pre-realtime) context, but it has most and will soon have all of the tools to model the new data type. What Robert Scoble calls metadata is indeed more richly aggregated in the service than other clouds, but both Facebook and Twitter are grappling with rapidly escalating infrastructure costs that push them toward broadcast models and away from harvesting the power of small, agile communities.

The realtime feedback loop changes the conversation in important ways, by harnessing a group of minds that can inject themselves immediately and swarm around an idea or a debate and help move it to some hybrid consensus. This quality of evolution and resolution has the additional property of pulling focus from the individual brands to the underlying dynamic that has attracted those voices. The metadata produced in these micro-conversations has a unique signature.

The arguments for and against realtime are valid, but no amount of hockey stick growth by Twitter or carpet bombing by Facebook will change the fact that micro-conversations and their rich metadata are injecting a new and highly charged economic imperative into the online equation. Many see this as a battle for the next search, where instead of topics we hunt people. If it were that simple, Google or Microsoft would cut Ev, Biz, and Jack a check and be done with it.

But that hasn’t happened yet, because a new data type means new metadata we haven’t thought about yet. Perhaps somebody has figured it out and is keeping it to themselves. Or perhaps the FriendFeeders need the help of the very micro-community they’ve empowered with realtime, filtering, and track. Separate from that is whether they can harvest that power and avoid being stripped of their invention, or whether Twitter can stuff the genie back in the bottle.