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The Real Time Web is Serious Business (For Forbes)

Submitted by on February 9, 2010 – 4:35 pmOne Comment

My new article for Forbes covering the real-time web is out this morning here:

There is a lot of fuss and confusion over the term “real-time Web” epitomized in this recent comment on O’Reilly Radar:

“I’ve been baffled about all the hype surrounding the ‘real-time Web’ in the past few months. Other than breaking news (which I already had no trouble finding online) I don’t see why everyone is excited about searching real-time content.”

To answer the question, real time is a big deal and it goes way beyond searching content on Twitter. Here’s why:

Real-time supply chains are already commonly understood. When a customer pulls an item off the store shelf, somewhere a supplier is being notified to replenish that inventory. The result is radically more efficient; production and distribution is scaled to meet precise demand.
Extend this premise to other systems and you start to see the power of real-time communication. As sensors get embedded in every device–from cars to dishwashers–these devices stop being dumb, standalone appliances. They become intelligent and capable of coordinated action. Your refrigerator communicates with the electrical grid and draws power when demand (and cost) is low. With all these devices in communication, the technological systems that regulate modern life–financial systems, energy systems, transportation systems and so on–begin to function much more like the human body. Sensor-based input can help regulate everything from traffic flows to optimal energy usage with smart appliances. When every car knows its location and speed, we see the possibility for real-time in managing efficient (and safer) transportation.

But real time has the most compelling possibilities for human interaction. Humans operate in real time–we receive information, process it and react in real time. Slowly our entire media and communications infrastructure–what Marshall McLuhan called “The Extensions of Man”–are moving into real time. On the Web this is most commonly understood through services like Twitter or Facebook where communications with your friends and their status updates flow as a constant, up-to-the-second feed. But that is just the beginning. The real-time Web is being used to coordinate group action as it happens–from protest actions in Tehran to Moldavia to California. As a consequence, the next decade will be defined by the rights and regulations surrounding privacy, anonymity, free speech and the right to electronically assemble–as citizens flock to the Internet as a means of promoting civil change.

Real-time systems also help to build social bonds and accelerate knowledge sharing. The power of Twitter goes beyond the information that flows through it, or the fact that it serves as an effective channel for “breaking news.” Twitter’s power lies in the fact that it helps broker social connections. As John Hagel, the renowned business and technology strategist, points out: In times of rapid change the type of knowledge that is valuable shifts from explicit (what can be contained in a document) to tacit (what is contained in a person). The promise of knowledge management lies in connecting people with other people, not with documents. Real-time communication flows will play an increasing role in making sure the questions find the right person (as opposed to the right document) and that we are in a continual state of connectivity.

Real-time testing feedback loops also put a premium on building a learning organization. Winners, on the Web and off, will be dynamically testing and improving closer to real time. Another way to think about this is to consider how Google would run your business–where every user action is used to provide a better service to the next customer. Considering the actions of your users as implicit feedback to continually refine your service is the heart of Web 2.0. It is also the future of being competitive in business.

With the rise of real time we are moving from lagging indicators (customer surveys, focus groups, long product cycles) to leading indicators (online analytics, real-time optimization, lean start-up methods for business). The lag time between question-and-answer and between customer response and company reaction is the arbitrage opportunity for many businesses today.

If the ’90s metaphor for the Internet was “the brain”–a giant, storage and processing system for all the world’s information–the new metaphor is the Social Nervous System, where all of this information is bound up with ubiquitous, real-time communications and used to direct activity in the world. In the Social Nervous System, the boundaries between online and offline become extremely blurry.

We are just scraping the surface of a real-time revolution–but make no mistake, it is a big deal. That is breaking news.

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