the webz for realz

The “real time web” is a phrase that’s coming dangerously close to buzzword heaven, to the point where formerly-Web-2.0-guys will start saying it’s a key feature of Web 3.0.  I’m not sure that the people who are so fond of the phrase are entirely clear on what it really means.

Some folks seem to say that “real time web” basically means everything more and faster.  It’s been a common tenet for at least a decade that the value in the Web is found in aggregating and analyzing information, and delivering the result to the right audiences.  Today we simply have more information, from more sources, and more techniques to analyze and filter the info flow.  Creation, collection, analysis, filtering and distribution of information happens so fast now that we can call it “real time” – but that’s just a fancy phrase for “really rilly fast.”  In this view, “real time web” is an inapt phrase if it’s meant to describe a new benefit – what we really have is just a new expression of an old (in Web terms) problem.

Another view is that the Real Time Web is not just a faster Web, but a new medium.  I don’t think I can articulate this view in brief, but the general idea is that fundamentally different sensory experiences are implicated by this new kind of personalized information that is delivered and filtered nearly concurrently with its creation.  This view is sexy sexy sexy:  it’s always so sexy to declare a new medium.  It’s so sexy that somehow the tone of new media declaration infuses the works of even the commentators whose words clearly describe nothing more than a faster Web.  When you read just about any writing that uses “real time web,” it seems that the author is striving to discuss new tools for new problems, rather than new tools for old problems, and would be aghast if it turned out that it’s actually just a discussion of old tools for old problems.

So is the real-time Web really just a faster Web, or is it a new medium, as different from the Web as the Web is from TV and radio?

That’s a deliberate question, since I think the fascination with ”’real-time”’ often represents a yearning for old media forms – especially broadcast media like TV and radio.  Ironically, people who have seen a lot of media evolution tend to race to declare every older medium dead, while they simultaneously pine for the familiar patterns of old media.

The idea of broadcasting – getting the same information out to many users at the same time – might be a familiar pattern that people are seeing when they think of the Real Time Web as a new medium.  Early Internet businesses like Pointcast and were simply about using the Web to get the same information to as many people as possible at (roughly) the same time.  But at this point, thinking of the Web as a broadcast medium requires perverse ignorance of the distinct characteristics that make the Web interesting as a new media format.

What is distinct about the Web versus other media is the extent to which information can be aggregated and analyzed, the low cost and ease of creation of content, the application of both computer algorithms and social means to filter and personalize delivery.  When people began to understand that, they stopped trying to broadcast and instead built businesses like Ebay and Amazon and Google – and it so happens that those businesses were built on aggregating and analyzing asynchronous information.

I guess I’m asking:  Is the asynchronicity of information creation, collection and analysis also an important distinct characteristic; and if so, does that mean that doing those things in real time makes the Web a different medium?

Another way to gauge the relative importance of the real-time concept:  Which would you rather have at your disposal, everything on the Web that is older than one hour, or everything that is more recent?  (Picking It Depends is not a choice.)

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