The potential in realtime

By February 22, 2009Blogging, Facebook

The life of the VC is a perennial search for the next big thing, and Steve Gillmor had a great post on TechCrunchIT yesterday arguing that it will be ‘realtime’.  He puts it thus:

As Marc Andreessen reminds in his fascinating conversation with Charlie Rose, the Internet didn’t take off until the browser. The infrastructure was in place for some time already, but when the browser appeared, the TV generation sat up and took notice.

Now we’re at the threshold of the realtime moment, and history seems to be repeating itself. For some of us, the advent of a reasonably realtime message bus over public networks has changed something about the existing infrastructure in ways that are not yet important to a broad section of Internet dwellers.

I have previously written about the potential for shared data services, and I’m starting to look at the realtime web in a similar fashion way.  Twitter and it’s ilk are unlocking whole new modes of interaction and at the same time generating some very interesting data.  Twitter search allows you to peer right inside the mind to see what the world is thinking at this precise moment, and I think that has to be good for something!  Adding credence to the notion that there is something important in realtime are 175 million users on Facebook looking at their feeds to see what their friends are doing in realtime.

I will admit that it is still early to say for sure, but if you are a naysayer on realtime read these next points from Steve’s post very carefully:

The standard attack on realtime is that it is the new crack. We’re all addicted to our devices, to the flow of alerts, messages, and bite-sized information chunks. We no longer have time for blog posts, refreshing our Twitter streams for pointers to what our friends think is important. It’s the revenge of the short attention span brought on by 30-second television ads — the myth of multi-tasking spread across a sea of factoids that Nick Carr fears will destroy scholarship and ultimately thinking.

Of course this is true and also completely irrelevant ….

….. The browser brought us an explosion of Web pages, produced first by professionals, then by small business owners, and finally, with blogs, by anybody. The struggle became one of time and location; RSS and search to the rescue. The time from idea to publish to consumption approached realtime.

The devices then took charge, widening the amount of time to consume the impossible flow. The Blackberry expanded work to all hours. The iPhone blurred the distinction between work and play. Twitter blurred personal and public into a single stream of updates. Facebook blurred real and virtual friendships. That’s where we are now.

Realtime has to be managed. The first tools in any transformative period are hard coded to the sensibilities of the radicals, the pioneers on the front lines. Scoble may appear ridiculous in his zeal for the extremes of the social media envelope, but his calculation is much more conservative than you might think at first glance. By opening himself to the tyranny of the crowd, he connects with that reality we each face.

In other words just as it was very hard to see the evolution of the command line pre-browser internet to the web we know and love today, so it may be hard to see what the realtime web might grow into.  After all, the major problems most people see, distraction and too much noise, are both issues that can be addressed by user interface development – and as with the internet if there is value to be had from realtime the tools to unlock it will be built.  The evolution of web tools Steve describes from technology through devices through to web services is worth re-reading with this thought in mind.

Another interesting point that Andreessen makes in the interview linked to above is that the iPhone might be as revolutionary for mobile networks as the browser was for the internet.  The infrastructure has been there for some time, but this is the first device that makes it easy enough for people to do what they want to do on that infrastructure.

  • Peter Clark

    I don't agree. Well I want to agree, but can't.

    The startup I founded aims to prevent "information overload" of news. The news world is constantly changing, you can literally get news updates every minute if you want to.

    Regular, non tech savvy users cannot stand the idea of being "flooded" with a stream of information. They like nice, beautiful, tailored digests of content rather than the techies dream of "streams".

    The FaceBook life streams are indeed popular, but is that because its about people you know — its inherently personalized because you created a relationship with everyone on that stream.

  • Peter Clark

    I don't agree. Well I want to agree, but can't.

    The startup I founded aims to prevent "information overload" of news. The news world is constantly changing, you can literally get news updates every minute if you want to.

    Regular, non tech savvy users cannot stand the idea of being "flooded" with a stream of information. They like nice, beautiful, tailored digests of content rather than the techies dream of "streams".

    The FaceBook life streams are indeed popular, but is that because its about people you know — its inherently personalized because you created a relationship with everyone on that stream.

  • Peter – it sounds like you are building the equivalent of a feed reader for the realtime web.  As I tried to describe in the post I see this sort of tool as enabling the realtime web.

  • Peter – it sounds like you are building the equivalent of a feed reader for the realtime web.  As I tried to describe in the post I see this sort of tool as enabling the realtime web.

  • Peter Clark

    Ah, yes. This post reminds me of my favourite web related quote:

    “It’s not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure”

    But I digress, have you tried FriendFeed? thats a nice feed reader for the "social" web.

  • Peter Clark

    Ah, yes. This post reminds me of my favourite web related quote:

    “It’s not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure”

    But I digress, have you tried FriendFeed? thats a nice feed reader for the "social" web.

  • Realtime offers a great opportunity to create value from (and earn revenue from) free content. There is a huge opportunity for combining structured and timely data with automated interaction decisions.

  • Realtime offers a great opportunity to create value from (and earn revenue from) free content. There is a huge opportunity for combining structured and timely data with automated interaction decisions.

  • MatthewWarneford

    I wanted to comment when the post was still hot off out of the oven, but time slipped away… and then Paul Grahams latest essay “Why TV Lost” (http://paulgraham.com/convergence.html) came along and said pretty much most of what I wanted to add (only he says it clearer than I would have!).

    Paul explores why he thinks TV has already lost to the internet, he proposes the most important factor is social applications:

    The somewhat more surprising force was one specific type of innovation: social applications. The average teenage kid has a pretty much infinite capacity for talking to their friends. But they can't physically be with them all the time. When I was in high school the solution was the telephone. Now it's social networks, multiplayer games, and various messaging applications. The way you reach them all is through a computer. [3] Which means every teenage kid (a) wants a computer with an Internet connection, (b) has an incentive to figure out how to use it, and (c) spends countless hours in front of it.

    This is where it ties into your real-time internet thoughts – simply real-time communication is just more powerful and meaningful. Sure I can write a letter to a pen pal, but I value the relationships with the friends I see every day, talk to in person, and go for a drink with, much more.

    In the case of the letter, the effort required and the 'response time', is simply a friction to forming great friendships. Thats not to say it doesnt happen – but its the exception.

    Whereas, its much easier for me to form a more meaningful connection with those people I speak to more often. Work is a great example, we're thrust together with strangers who very quickly become great friends. This wouldnt happen if we could only communicate with them through email – its those 'water cooler' moments that form the friendships.

    In a round about way I'm suggest that real-time communication makes it easier to start conversations and make friendships (in this case real-time is just talking!). And of course we all want friends (love, belonging – Maslows hierarchy and all that).

    So nothing new there – but the point is that real-time sharing of data is not the end in and of itself. Rather, the sharing of the data has to serve a purpose; helping me make and retain friendships.

    The question becomes, is the current slew of status updates really the best form of realtime communication?

    My problem with twitter and facebook is that their great for retaining connection with friends and its super to know what my sister in africa is up to, but it doesn't really bring me any closer to her.

    The near we get to solving the problem of making news friends or becoming closer to existing ones the bigger the opportunity, because simply the value of the product to the end users is much greater! Image a product through which I can make friends for life – wow!

    One last quote from Paul:

    Shows will change even more. On the Internet there's no reason to keep their current format, or even the fact that they have a single format. Indeed, the more interesting sort of convergence that's coming is between shows and games.

    This, I think, is so true. I know TV is a context for me and my friends; we'll watch it together, and talk about it at work. Bring that kind of content into a social world/game and suddenly there is the catalyst for friendships to form. Let me play that story, be in the story, and play with with friend and strangers. We've all got something in common then, something to kick off and talk about.

    That, I feel, will be a huge part of the real-time internet.

    Sorry – late comment and long!

  • Thanks Matthew – Paul's post was very interesting. A couple of thoughts on your comment:
    1) I think twitter and FB status updates can bring us closer to 'sister in Africa' acquaintances. People have coined the phrase 'ambient intimacy' to describe the closeness you get from simply having more knowledge of what people are thinking/feeling/doing. This knowledge also makes real world meetings richer when they do happen.
    2) I agree that there is potential in extending these tools to help people meet new people

  • MatthewWarneford

    Ha ha I really like the 'ambient intimacy' phrase!

    I wonder if the current crop of tools focus on breadth of communication rather than the depth? I can't remember the article, but a study suggested that the average person has 4 close friends, and 3ish rings of friends up to 150 people.

  • MatthewWarneford

    Ha ha I really like the 'ambient intimacy' phrase!

    I wonder if the current crop of tools focus on breadth of communication rather than the depth? I can't remember the article, but a study suggested that the average person has 4 close friends, and 3ish rings of friends up to 150 people.