The Real-Time Web Is Here. So What’s Next?

FastThe last few months brought a trend into the mainstream that has been developing for quite a while: The real-time web. Twitter, the new Facebook, FriendFeed, Google, push services on your mobile device … the web is speeding up wherever you look.

Remember the good old times when Google’s index was updated only every few weeks? It could take months to get a new page into the major search engines. This leisurely pace is gone forever. You will find this blog article on Google only minutes after I published it.

Oh, and if you’re like most people, you got here because you saw a link to this article on your Twitter or Facebook feed. By the time you read the article to the end (which I hope you’ll do), the message that brought you here probably will have disappeared from the first page of updates on either of these services. That’s the pace of the real-time web. So much to see, so little mental bandwidth.
The web was originally designed as a digital library, a system where scientists could exchange their research papers in a more efficient way. Almost by definition, progress was measured in weeks or months, not days or hours. Even during the wild days of the dot-com bubble, most people dialed into the Internet a few times a day at most. Connecting to the web was something you did consciously, and the rhythm of all updates was restricted by this. E-mail was the natural medium of that era.

The always-on availability of broadband and the mobile Internet on our BlackBerries and iPhones have changed this forever. Most of us now have almost constant, immediate access to the Internet, and that’s the key enabler for a much higher speed of interaction. A service like Twitter can only exist under these conditions. Social networking sites like Facebook or Myspace only make real sense in a broadband world. Only when you’re constanly connected can you really enjoy the many little emotional kicks of getting updates about what your friends are doing just now. No wonder that many social network users are literally spending hours per day on these sites.

The most extreme example of the real-time web is probably Twitter’s search function. Theoretically, it helps you to search for relevant tweets about a certain topic. But for most popular topics, it’s actually more of a firehose of information — or, to be more precise, of unfiltered utterings from random invidivuals. Just try following Twitter Search’s constantly updated feed during the airing of any popular TV show. There are typically dozens of new tweets per minute about that show. You can either watch the show or follow all the tweets about it, doing both at the same time is almost impossible. But the tweets are typically more entertaining.

Like every new medium — and the real-time web is a new medium, not just a faster version of the old web — this rapid stream of information shapes the perception and behavior patterns of its users. Scientists are already worrying (like with every new medium in history) about the negative consequences this might have. And most users I know still somehow feel that Twitter, Facebook etc. are actually a waste of time. Why would you suspect yourself to this constant stream of mundane details about other people’s lifes? OK, occcasionally there might be a witty insight or interesting piece of information, but does that really justify having to deal with all this noise?

If you look at the growth rates that these services are currently experiencing, the answer seems to be yes. That’s not really surprising. Humans have always been hungry for information and entertaining distractions, and like with tasty food, most people can’t seem to get enough of it.

The result from eating too much is obesity. But we still don’t really know what consequences we face from too much fast information. Twitter is to information what potato chips are to food: It’s a snack that’s probably unhealthy, but it’s very difficult to stop once you started consuming it. People who are not on Twitter probably are instead addicted to e-mail or texting or Facebook or real-time stock quotes. Most people I know have some kind of real-time information addiction. We are all very impatient, and the real-time web in its many forms accommodates the craving for instant gratification through information.

So the real-time web is definitely a reality. It will need some time to develop further, to mature and to conquer even more users, but it’s clearly here to stay. The big question is of course: What’s next after the real-time web? It’s somehow hard to imagine that the stream of information can get any more abundant and flow any faster.

I think there are two possible directions this could take: Maybe we will see a major backlash against all this information overload. Maybe people will suddenly start questioning if all this noise really makes their life better. It would certainly resonate with the recession-driven sense of weariness that many people are feeling. Several authors — Timothy Ferris of “Four Hour Workweek” fame is an example –recently became popular by promoting a “low information diet” and a general slowdown. Ironically, most of these authors of course promote their ideas through books, blogs, videos, and, yes, on Twitter.

The other possible (and, I suspect, more probable) direction is that the torrent of information will find new ways to its consumers. The boom in the smartphone market is a first sign of what this may look like: The traditional computer screen has probably reached a point of saturation as an information channel, but other devices still have room for growth. BlackBerry user were the pioneers of mobile information overflow, and all the new buyers of iPhones and similar products are now following suit. And there’s of course the living room and its underutilized big screen: LG recently introduced a TV set that can show information from the Internet in the form of on-screen widgets. It’s probably just a question of time before many other TVs and set-top boxes will offer something similar.

Although there have been occasional backlashes in the history of media, people in the end always opted for more and faster information. When a new medium with higher information density appears, it takes people a while to get used to it , but after some time, there’s appetite for even more information. And most probably, the real-time web is just another milestone in this long-term trend.

(Picture: NathanFromDeVryEET, CC)

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