Weekly Update

The Real-Time Web Isn’t the New Internet

There’s a fair amount of confusion in the mainstream media around how the value of the real-time web differs from that of the traditional one, as evidenced by a recent USA Today story, in which the “real-time web” was described as “the latest iteration of the Internet…exemplified by the obsessive use of PCs or cell phones.”

Though the “real-time web” is sometimes described as the next evolution of the Internet, it’s more likely to co-exist with and complement, rather than supplant, the Internet we’ve been using so far. We’ll use these two webs in decidedly different ways.

But these distinctions are often blurred today. New Facebook users commonly dismiss the site as vain or trivial after reading status updates like, “Going to bed now,” and “Going to see a movie.” (“Who cares?” they think.) But when a coworker at the water cooler says he’s going to see a movie, they don’t see that as vain or trivial. That’s because they separate the real-time experience of conversation from the indexed, archived Internet.

And that’s the thing: Part of what’s valuable about the real-time web is only valuable in the moment in which it’s being experienced.

I learned this first-hand the day I got word that a nut with a gun had opened fire in an office building two blocks from my wife’s workplace and was, at mid-day, still on the loose. My wife told me via phone that her building was on security lockdown. But I wanted more information on the shooter to get a sense of what he might do next – where did he go? What were his motives? Was he targeting politicians? (The victim was in politics, and my wife worked in the capitol building.)

I was hungry for real-time information, and there was a steady trickle of it, in a local news blog, periodically throughout the day: The shooter had recently been laid off, it said. His victim was his former employer. Knowing those motives made me feel a little better about my wife’s safety; this is no sprawling rampage, I told myself, it’s targeted revenge. But the next day, I learned that all those blog reports were false. The shooter’s motives are still a mystery. At the time, however, I was happy to have some information rather than none. Is it strange to say those false reports served their purpose — for me, at least — at the time?

We’re already familiar with such analogies to illustrate the noise trade-off of real-time information: Live video of a mid-day car chase and the evening news’ coverage of it each have their own value and price. Another example is YouTube’s recent ranking of what’s hot at the moment; the feature feeds our intrinsic need for simultaneously shared experiences, adding a feeling of connectedness to the entertainment value of the video — a feeling that diminishes over time.

One of the most promising ways to unleash and more clearly distinguish the specific capabilities of the real-time web is with location information, which Twitter is wisely targeting. After all, in an increasingly mobile world, location is often linked to the present moment. (In fact, one could argue that what I really wanted that day of the shooting was location-based information.) There are obvious loation-specific benefits to real-time traffic information, too. One useful real-time app shows users waiting for a bus where it is. If there isn’t yet a real-time app for finding available cabs, and ATMs, there should be. How about one that lets smokers find one another, to bum cigarettes on the street? Real-time will be helpful tracking shipments and making appointments. The implications for machine-to-machine (M2M) communication could probably fill a column by themselves.

But the tradeoffs we accept with the real-time web will follow it everywhere – part of the lesson I learned on the day of the shooting. In an emergency, real-time crowdsourcing could lead the way to safety. And it could spread confusion and misinformation, too.

Question of the week

How will the real-time web and the historical one complement each other?