Category Archives: Realtime

The eternal conference call

What goes around comes around, if always a little faster.

Remember when we first started using email, back in the foggy depths of the twentieth century? The great thing about email, everyone said and everyone believed, was that it was an asynchronous communications medium. (Yes, that’s how we used to talk.) Email cured the perceived shortcomings of telephone calls, which dominated our work lives. The ring of your phone would butt into whatever you happened to be doing at that moment, and you had no choice but to answer the damn thing (it might be your boss or your client, after all), and then you had no choice but to respond immediately to whatever the person on the another end was saying or asking. The telephone was realtime and it was synchronous, and those were bad things. One of the major roles of the traditional secretary was to add a buffer to the endless stream of phone calls: paying someone to screen your calls was a kludgy way to make a synchronous medium act sort of like an asynchronous one.

When voicemail entered the scene, people cheered at first, but it actually only made matters worse. The phone became an even more demanding medium. The voicemail light was always blinking, and when you listened to a voicemail, you felt compelled to respond immediately. There was a reason we called it “voicemail hell.”

And don’t even get me started about conference calls.

Email delivered us from the telephone’s realtime stream. Suddenly, we controlled, individually, our main communications medium, rather than vice versa. We could choose when to read our email, and, more important, we could choose when to respond – and whom to respond to. The buffer was built into the technology. Even taking just a few minutes to think about a message often led to a more thoughtful response than an immediate, halfbaked phone reply. After email took hold in offices, you always had a few doofus laggards who continued to rely on the phone and voicemail. They were widely despised: synchronous dinosaurs lumbering through the pleasant pastures of asynchronous Internet communication.

But email also did something else, the consequences of which we didn’t fully foresee. It dramatically reduced the transaction costs of personal communication. You had to think at least a little bit before placing a phone call, not just because it might cost you a few cents but because you knew you were going to interrupt the other person. Is this really necessary, or can it wait? Email removed that calculation from the equation. Everything was worth an email. (As direct marketers and spammers also soon discovered.) And there was the wonderful CC field and the even more wonderful Reply All button. Broadcasting, cumbersome with the phone, became easy with email.

Goodbye voicemail hell. Welcome to email hell.

Turns out, we were mistaken about email all along. Asynchrony was never actually a good thing. It was simply an artifact of a paucity of bandwidth. Or so we’re told today, as the realtime stream – texts, tweets, Facebook updates – o’erbrims its banks, and out on the horizon rises the all-consuming Wave. In “Wave New World,” an article in the current edition of Time, Lev Grossman writes:

Keep in mind that until the mid-1990s, when e-mail went mainstream, the network environment was very different. Bandwidth was a scarce resource. You had your poky modem and liked it. Which is why e-mail was created in the image of the paper-postal system: tiny squirts of electronic text. But now we’re rolling in bandwidth … And yet we’re still passing one another little electronic notes. Google Wave rips up that paradigm and embraces the power of the networked, collaborative, postpaper world.

Jessica Vascellaro makes a similar point in heralding “the end of the email era” in today’s Wall Street Journal:

We all still use email, of course. But email was better suited to the way we used to use the Internet—logging off and on, checking our messages in bursts. Now, we are always connected, whether we are sitting at a desk or on a mobile phone. The always-on connection, in turn, has created a host of new ways to communicate that are much faster than email, and more fun. Why wait for a response to an email when you get a quicker answer over instant messaging? [Email] seems boring compared to services like Google Wave.

The flaw of synchronous communication has been repackaged as the boon of realtime communication. Asynchrony, once our friend, is now our enemy. The transaction costs of interpersonal communication have fallen below zero: It costs more to leave the stream than to stay in it. The approaching Wave promises us the best of both worlds: the realtime immediacy of the phone call with the easy broadcasting capacity of email. Which is also, as we’ll no doubt come to discover, the worst of both worlds. Welcome to the conference call that never ends. Welcome to Wave hell.

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.

The New York Real Times

Twitterification continues. Not only are other social networking sites, such as Facebook, scrambling to pour their members’ energy into the realtime stream, but more traditional publishers are also adopting the Twitter model to firehose their content. Build your arks, my friends: The stream is going mainstream.

Yesterday, it was the New York Times that took the realtime plunge with the launch of Times Wire, a jittery twittery service that the paper describes as “a continuously updated stream of the latest stories and blog posts.” The news scroll updates every minute, as fresh stories flicker into consciousness and old ones flicker out. Times Wire doesn’t just give the Gray Lady a facelift; it jabs an IV into the ashen flesh of her forearm and hooks her up to a Red Bull drip bag. It’s Times Wired.

This isn’t the first appearance of Times Wire. The original was installed next to the death bed of former president Woodrow Wilson on February 1, 1924, as the Times reported in a story headlined “Times Wire Near Bedside”:

Special facilities to transmit the news from former President Wilson’s bedside were installed by The New York Times early this evening. A telephone wire was connected with The Times Washington Bureau in the Albee Building and temporary headquarters half a block from the Wilson home in S Street. A Morse instrument was attached to this wire and every change in Mr. Wilson’s condition was instantly flashed to the Washington Bureau and then transmitted over leased wires to the New York office of The Times, giving the most expeditious service.

That’s right: Woodrow Wilson, though he surely didn’t realize it at the time, was the world’s first Twitterer.

woodrow: Still dying.

Now every story gets the ailing president treatment. Not only is all the news fit to stream, but realtime renders all news equal.


But there’s real realtime and there’s faux realtime, and it remains to be seen whether the Times will prove streamworthy. Techcrunch worries that the paper’s “real-time river isn’t flowing fast enough.” After all, “by the time an old media site gets a story approved, written and edited, a dozen blogs probably have already covered the same news.” Times Wire offers “some interesting reads,” but “none are particularly new.”

Realtime is a harsh mistress. She wants everything, from androgynous 80s pop stars to terminally ill world leaders, and she wants it now.

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.

The unripened word

He was off by two centuries and a medium or two, but it was, nevertheless, the French poet and bureaucrat Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine who, in an 1831 letter, foretold all:

Before this century shall run out, Journalism will be the whole press – the whole human thought. Through that prodigious multiplication which art has given to speech – multiplication to be multiplied a thousand-fold yet – mankind will write their book day by day, hour by hour, page by page. Thought will spread abroad in the world with the rapidity of light; instantly conceived, instantly written, instantly understood, at the extremities of earth, it will spread from pole to pole. Sudden, instant, burning with the fervor of soul which made it burst forth, it will be the reign of the human soul in all its plenitude. It will not have time to ripen, to accumulate into the form of a book – the book will arrive too late. The only book possible from today is a Newspaper.

Today, I went out and picked my copy of the Sunday New York Times off the dirt, shucked off its damp plastic wrapper, and felt like a mug. I had already seen all the headlines on the web; the cover story of the magazine had been up on the Times’s site forever. I pay good money for my subscription – I keep the goddamn newsroom afloat – and the Times treats me with contempt. It laughs in my face.

But what choice does it have?

The Newspaper arrives too late. The only Newspaper possible from today is a Text. A Tweet. Sudden, instant, burning with the fervor of soul which made it burst forth.

Unripeness is all.

A hundred years ago, James Gordon Bennett Jr., editor of the New York Herald, was criticized for the inconsistency of his paper. He replied: “I bring the paper out every day. Advertisement dwells in a one-day world.”

Media define our conception of time. The one-day world is gone. Today it’s a one-minute world. Today it’s a one-second world. Today it’s realtime.

Writing of the arrival of radio, Harold Innis, the economic historian who taught McLuhan everything he knew, observed, in his 1951 book The Bias of Communication:

The radio accentuated the importance of the ephemeral and of the superficial … The demands of the new media were imposed on the older media, the newspaper and the book. With these powerful developments time was destroyed and it became increasingly difficult to achieve continuity or to ask for a consideration of the future.

We think we’re special with our high technology. But we’re merely living out a fate ordained centuries ago when the distribution of the word was originally mechanized. Time is in pieces. We shake them as a baby shakes its rattle.

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.


Forget flashmobs. The new thing is the hashmob.

A flashmob is, in case it’s already slipped your mind, “a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual action for a brief time, then quickly disperse.” The term is, as Wikipedia continues, “generally applied only to gatherings organized via social media or viral emails, rather than those organized by public relations firms or for a publicity stunt.” Flashmobs had their moment of near-fame back in the middle years of this decade. I believe they were particularly popular in Finland.

Flashmobs were okay, but they had a couple of big downsides. First, they required you to go outside. Second, you had to, well, be in a flashmob. Both downsides are nicely illustrated in this video:

Hashmobs solve both problems by transferring the flashmob concept into a purely realtime environment. A hashmob is a virtual mob that exists entirely within the Twitter realtime stream. It derives its name not from any kind of illicit pipeweed but from the “hashtags” that are commonly used to categorize tweets. Hashtags take the form of a hash sign, ie, #, in front of a word or word-portmanteau, eg, #obama or #obamadog. The members of a hashmob gather, virtually, around a particular hashtag by labeling each of their tweets with said hashtag and then following the resulting hashtag tweet stream. Hashmobbers don’t have to subject themselves to the weather, and they don’t actually have to be in proximity to any other physical being. A hashmob is a purely avatarian mob, though it is every bit as prone to the rapid cultivation of mass hysteria as a nonavatarian mob.

The canonical example (to date) of a hashmob emerged a few days ago around the hashtag #amazonfail., as the result of a foul-up relating to its classification system for products, temporarily removed gay-and-lesbian-themed books from its sales rankings. Soon after the snafu, or, if you wish, FAIL!, came to light, a trickle of tweets labeled #amazonfail started to drip from the realtime faucet. The trickle promptly turned into a raging torrent – thousands of angry tweets an hour. The resulting hashmob spent a day or two pillorying Amazon and spinning various imaginary conspiracy theories, some of the more ridiculous of which fingered Amazon as a member of an anti-gay cabal run by Mormon elders. Because journalists have become some of the most avid Twitterers, the #amazonfail hashmob quickly gained a good bit of press coverage.

And then, as it became clear that the reaction had far exceeded its cause, the hashmob slowly dispersed. Tag it #amazonfailfail.

If you’re not sufficiently adapted to realtime, you may wake up after an enjoyable day of hashmobbery feeling a touch of remorse. One #amazonfail hashmobber, Clay Shirky, aired his rue yesterday. Admitting that “the emotional pleasure of using the #amazonfail hashtag was intoxicating,” he wrote:

Though the #amazonfail event is important for several reasons, I can’t write about it dispassionately, because I was an enthusiastic participant in its use on Sunday. I was wrong, because I believed things that weren’t true. As bad as that was, though, far worse is the retrofitting of alternate rationales to continue to view Amazon with suspicion, rationales that would not have provoked the outrage we felt had they been all we were asked to react to in the first place …

Whatever stupidities Amazon is guilty of, none of them are hanging offenses. The problems they have with labeling and handling contested categories is a problem with all categorization systems since the world began … We know all that, but we’re no longer willing to cut Amazon any slack, because we don’t trust them, and we don’t trust them because we feel like they did something bad, even though we now know, intellectually, that they didn’t actually do the bad thing we’ve come to hate them for.

In his own post-mortem, Bill Thompson, the BBC tech blogger, was not so forgiving:

As I write this [Amazon] has claimed that the episode was an unfortunate [mistake] and does not reflect a new policy, and I’m tempted to believe that it was never their intention to delist or downgrade books that are about gay, lesbian, transsexual or bisexual issues – or those written by authors who are not aggressively heterosexual in their appetites … However they have clearly broken the bond of trust with a large number of their readers, and it will take a long time to recover.

Fortunately for Amazon, a “long time” in realtime is equal to about five minutes in clock time. Being beaten with the virtual pillows of a hashmob may not have been pleasant, but it’s not going to cause the company any permanent, or even passing, harm. It was a tempest in a tweetpot, a ripple in the stream.

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.

Twitter dot dash (reissue)

On its homepage, Twitter cycles various blurbs about Twitter. One of them – “Twitter is the telegraph system of Web 2.0” – is attributed to me. I have absolutely no memory of writing that, but I’ve no doubt that I did. And what do you know: a correspondent today pointed me to one of my ancient posts, from early 2007, in which that line appears. What was most amazing to me, though, is how neatly that old post fits into my current “The Realtime Chronicles” series. I even mention Baudrillard! It seems like an affront to the whole notion of realtime to recycle a two-year-old post, but – fuck realtime – here it is:

Twitter dot dash

March 18, 2007

And so at last, after passing through Email and Instant Messaging and Texting, we arrive in the land of Twitter. The birds are singing in the trees – they look like that robin at the end of Blue Velvet – and the air itself is so clean you can see yourself in it.

Twitter is the telegraph system of Web 2.0. Like Morse’s machine, it limits messages to very brief strings of text. But whereas the telegraph imposed its limit through the market’s will – priced by the word, telegraph messages were too expensive to waste – Twitter imposes its limit through the iron law of code. Each message may include no more than 140 characters. As you type your message – your “tweet,” in Twitterese – in the Twitter messaging box, a counter lets you know how many characters you have left. (That last sentence wouldn’t quite have made the cut. It has 146 characters. Faulkner would have been a disaster as a Twitterer.)

Only on the length of each message is a limit imposed. Because there’s no charge to send a message and no protocol governing the frequency of posting, you can send as many tweets as you want. The telegraph required you to stop and ask yourself: Is this worth it? Twitter says: Everything’s worth it! (If you’re sending or receiving tweets on your cell phone, though, you best have an all-you-can eat messaging plan; Twitter is, among other things, a killer app for the wireless oligopoly.) You can also send each tweet to as large an audience as you want, and the recipients are free to read it via mobile phone, instant messaging, RSS, or web site. Twitter unbundles the blog, fragments the fragment. It broadcasts the text message, turns SMS into a mass medium.

And what exactly are we broadcasting? The minutiae of our lives. The moment-by-moment answer to what is, in Twitterland, the most important question in the world: What are you doing? Or, to save four characters: What you doing? Twitter is the telegraph of Narcissus. Not only are you the star of the show, but everything that happens to you, no matter how trifling, is a headline, a media event, a stop-the-presses bulletin. Quicksilver turns to amber.

Are you exhausted yet?

Dave Winer has succeeded in creating a New York Times feed through the Twitter service, as if to prove that everything is equal in its 140-character triviality. “All the news that’s fit to twit,” twitters Dave. The world is flat, and so is information.

my dog just piddled on the rug! :-) [less than 10 seconds ago]

Seventeen killed in Baghdad suicide bombing [2 minutes ago]

Oh my god I cant believe it I just ate 14 double stuff Oreos [3 minutes ago]

A conflicted Kathy Sierra explains why Twitter is so addictive. Boiled down to a couple of tweets, it goes like this: using Twitter presents us with the possibility of a social reward, while not using it presents us with the possibility of a social penalty – and the possibility of a reward or penalty is a far more compelling motivator than the reality of a reward or penalty. Look at me! Look at me! Are you looking?

Tara Hunt says, “Twitter is a representation of my stream of consciousness.” What used to happen in the privacy of the mind is now tossed into the public’s bowl like so many Fritos. The broadcasting of the spectacle of the self has become a full-time job. Au revoir, Jean Baudrillard, your work here is done.

Like so many other Web 2.0 services, Twitter wraps itself and its users in an infantile language. We’re not adults having conversations, or even people sending messages. We’re tweeters twittering tweets. We’re twitters tweetering twits. We’re twits tweeting twitters. We’re Tweety Birds.

I did! I did taw a puddy tat! [half a minute ago]

I tawt I taw a puddy tat! [1 minute ago]

Narcissism is just the user interface for nihilism, of course, and with artfully kitschy services like Twitter we’re allowed to both indulge our self-absorption and distance ourselves from it by acknowledging, with a coy digital wink, its essential emptiness. I love me! Just kidding!

The great paradox of “social networking” is that it uses narcissism as the glue for “community.” Being online means being alone, and being in an online community means being alone together. The community is purely symbolic, a pixellated simulation conjured up by software to feed the modern self’s bottomless hunger. Hunger for what? For verification of its existence? No, not even that. For verification that it has a role to play. As I walk down the street with thin white cords hanging from my ears, as I look at the display of khakis in the window of the Gap, as I sit in a Starbucks sipping a chai served up by a barista, I can’t quite bring myself to believe that I’m real. But if I send out to a theoretical audience of my peers 140 characters of text saying that I’m walking down the street, looking in a shop window, drinking tea, suddenly I become real. I have a voice. I exist, if only as a symbol speaking of symbols to other symbols.

It’s not, as Scott Karp suggests, “I Twitter, therefore I am.” It’s “I Twitter because I’m afraid I ain’t.”

As the physical world takes on more of the characteristics of a simulation, we seek reality in the simulated world. At least there we can be confident that the simulation is real. At least there we can be freed from the anxiety of not knowing where the edge between real and unreal lies. At least there we find something to hold onto, even if it’s nothing.

I did! I did taw a puddy tat!

The stream

“Controlling the stream” is not just one of the major life-challenges facing elderly gentlemen; it is the center of industrial competition on the realtime social network that we once termed “Web 2.0.” Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, gave a speech yesterday before a group of advertising executives in New York in which she argued, as the Wall Street Journal reported, that “banner and text ads are old news.” Today, “the new tactic is to blur the lines between marketing and social networking” by introducing commercial messages into “the stream” of realtime status updates exchanged among friends.

Intimacy, whether real or feigned, is gold in the ad world, and it is the impression of intimacy that Facebook and its competitors look to deliver, to both members and advertisers.

In a blog-gloss on her speech, Sandberg gamely tried to convince Facebookers of the value of “the stream” as a means of greatly expanding their friend-set:

Think about the ways you communicate with your friends – whether on or off Facebook. The communication likely falls into one of two traditional types: reciprocal communication or direct communication. Reciprocal communication is a conversation where messages are exchanged back and forth … Direct communication occurs when you send a message to someone specific, with or without the expectation of a reply …

On Facebook, there’s a third and new way you communicate – through the stream. Every time you log into your home page you see a running timeline or stream of the information being shared by your friends and the other things you’re connected with on Facebook. The more people share, the more you see in the stream and the more you learn about your connections.

This stream communication, rather than reciprocal and direct communication, forms your active network. Whenever you interact with a story in the stream – whether you “Like” a piece of content, comment on it or simply click on it – the person sharing it becomes part of your active network.

Because the realtime stream broadcasts all interpersonal communications among the members of one’s “active network,” Sandberg says, it leads to “greater connectedness” across the network, which also greatly expands “the ability for people to influence one another with more speed and efficiency.” By “people,” Sandberg means, of course, “advertisers.” She explains: “Our Engagement Ads on the home page allow you to take common activities like commenting, RSVPing for an event or giving a virtual gift directly in the ad. If any of your friends have already taken an action, that appears in the ad as well. We’ve found that interaction with those ads increases 50 percent when someone sees a friend’s action, such as a comment.”

ReadWriteWeb’s crotchety Marshall Kirkpatrick finds this all a little bit “creepy”:

Facebook management is acting like a group of cult leaders intent on changing the rest of us into more social, less private people than we might want to be … Isn’t there a lot more to human connection than one liner status updates, photos posted online, “thumbs up” and the other relatively mechanistic interactions that people have on Facebook? What’s the end result of all these magical connections through relatively shallow communication? Advertising! … That’s the highlight of all this that Sandberg points to – formerly free-thinking individuals [using] Facebook to turn themselves into players in an advertisement.

So far, the Facebook multitudes seem more baffled by “the stream” than enamored of it. But Facebook’s intrusive-advertising strategy has long been one of taking two steps forward and then, when the members rebel, apologizing profusely before taking one step back. Do that enough times, and before long you’ll arrive at your goal.

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.

Deriving real value from the social graph

As the physical presences formerly known as “human beings” undergo transmutation into electronic avatars on the realtime social network, the ability to automatically track and analyze their “movements” and “relationships” becomes an increasingly attractive value-mining opportunity. This opportunity exists today, but what’s required to exploit it is the connection of the rich data collected on avatars’ activities with data collected on various salient economic variables. Such a connection of datasets would allow much more precise estimates of the economic value of, for example, “friends” and “followers” in the context of both consumer markets and labor markets and, in turn, the ability to better measure, incentivize, and in general manipulate interactions on the so-called social graph.

A new report from an industrial-academic team of MIT and IBM researchers begins to give a sense of the historic scope of this social-engineering opportunity, at least in the labor context. As the researchers note, in their introductory remarks, there exists “a large body of literature on social networks and organizations that describes the benefit of social networks on work performance in various settings,” but “little research leverages the ample data that are created by people’s interactions, such as e-mail, call logs, text messaging, document repositories, web 2.0 tools, and so on.” The “gap,” they note, is “problematic.” Fortunately, “recent empirical work has started to capture real-time communication between people in various settings.” For example, “recent advances in information technology give researchers the opportunity to solicit real-time email communication data. Since email archives record detailed communication logs, such as who has emailed whom, the exact time of the interaction, and the content of the exchange, using email archives to construct social networks allows researchers to eliminate any errors and bias that are introduced through self-reports.”

But the automated mining of email communications is only the tip of a much larger iceberg of opportunities for analyzing personal data sources on the realtime network. One “privacy-preserving” system for “organizational social network analysis” has been “deployed in more than 70 countries to quantitatively infer the social networks of 400,000 employees within a large [consulting] organization. It uses social sensors to gather, crawl and mine various types of data sources, including content and properties of individual email and instant message communications, calendars, organizational hierarchical structure, project and role assignment.”

The research team analyzed the data collected by this system in order to “examine the effect of network characteristics on revenues for both employee and project networks” as well as on “individual employee productivity.” The researchers discovered that “having strong connections with contacts in the network does not necessarily have any significant impact on performance,” but that having contacts with an “additional manager is associated [with] $588 additional monthly revenues,” pointing to the importance to value creation of “having strong connection to people in the position of power.” The fact that, in business, it’s “who you know” may not seem startling, but the ability to precisely quantify, in dollar terms, the value of instances of “friending” gives a powerful hint of the future benefits that will accrue to those institutions able to pursue the automated collection and analysis of data, with or without “privacy-preserving” controls, on the behavior of “people” as they navigate the vast and radically transparent avatarian realm.

As Stephen Baker notes, in reporting on the MIT-IBM study, “Users of social media rack up LinkedIn contacts, Facebook friends, and Twitter followers by the hundreds, if not thousands. But figuring out how big a difference all those contacts make in a person’s life, financial or otherwise, is a far murkier matter.” Thanks to powerful data-mining software deployed by corporations and other interested parties, the murk may at last be lifting. Baker concludes: “more companies are sure to study the company we keep – and even attempt to calculate how much each friendship is worth.” The creation of the social graph, it’s clear, was only the first step in a long process of economic optimization.

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.