Will the New “Real-time” Web Last?

I’ll be attending TechCrunch’s CrunchUp on the “real-time” web. There’s a good agenda and some of the pioneering “real-time” individuals and companies will be discussing their ideas and presenting their products that help facilitate “real-time” activities.

My use of quotes around “real-time” is because I find this term, similar to “social media,” to be an odd descriptor. If we think about the early days of the consumer web, two of the most popular features were instant messaging and chat rooms. It doesn’t get much more real-time than that. So, one can argue that real-time is not new but rather evolved. It is that evolution and what makes this version of real-time different and interesting that I want to examine. Now, that you get the point, I’ll (mostly) drop my use of quotes. But first, some more history.

Back in the glory days of “Web 2.0,” blogs and RSS were the real-time web and Technorati was the go to resource for understanding them. If a blog was not in Technorati, it might as well have not existed. A blogger’s clout was married to his Technorati ranking and FeedBurner stats. Like many other blog search engines and to some extent, even Google’s own effort, Technorati has pretty much gone the way of the dinosaur (although they are trying to make a come back with Twittorati).

It is hard to pinpoint why a Web 2.0 poster child failed so hard. It didn’t happen overnight. The reasons why they floundered are important. Some of these factors included its inability to keep results relevant (too much noise, SPAM, languages, etc.), scaling its indexing (bloggers would often complain about updates taking days), Google including blog postings in its index, and many established media players either creating their own blog content or syndicating it from the biggest blogs. Thus, that interpretation of the real-time web slowly integrated itself into the larger web, until it was no longer distinguishable as a “real-time” element.

Without the historical context of IM, chat rooms, blogs, and similar technologies, it is easy to get swept up into the “new” craze of the real-time web. What we are experiencing, while exciting, is just the next paradigm of real-time. This particular interpretation actually combines two qualities of its predecessors. The first is the absolute immediacy of IM and the second is the broadcast nature of blogs. Twitter is basically a version of IM that publishes to all friends on a buddy list. Indeed, co-founder Jack Dorsey describes one influence of Twitter being around friends’ IM status messages, giving the service its “what are you doing?” tagline.

Another major distinction of today’s real-time web is mobile. The current climate puts state-of-the-art yet intuitive, smart mobile devices that are GPS and video-enabled in the hands of average consumers. Not only have the devices themselves advanced rapidly, they now have platforms where thousands upon thousands of developers are flocking to build applications on top of them. Just like with the tools that made the blogging revolution possible, it is now dead simple to instantaneously broadcast text, photos, and videos from the a device that fits in a pocket.

In understanding the history of the real-time web and the characteristics of its latest interpretation, a question remains. Are there any signs that it is starting to simply be subsumed into the larger web? This question is not motivated by looking for the “next big thing” or in wanting everyone to get over there Twitter obsession. Rather, the answer informs where these technologies are at in their life cycle and what we can expect from them in the future.

There’s no doubt that Twitter has spread far beyond its early adopter roots. That happened well before Oprah. Most established media outlets constantly promote their Twitter handles. Twitter is a common choice for late night jokes and parodies. For businesses in particular, being on Twitter is now not as much of a competitive advantage because many people and organizations are also on it.

This type of saturation was one of the breaking points for blogging. Many early bloggers became disillusioned and abandoned their blogs because of their need to “keep up” with them while having to compete with larger and more reputable blogging outlets. Although Twitter requires lower maintenance, keeping up with the stream of updates can feel overwhelming, as can having to compete with CNN and aplusk.

It is clear that society is coming to terms with the new real-time web but society alone cannot make it become integrated into a seamless web experience. What’s missing is a technology disruption by a major player that brings real-time results to where users already are. Twitter acquired Summize under this motivation. Similarly, many startups have funding to solve how to mine and index real-time data. It will either be their acquisition or the birth of similar technologies at big players like Microsoft, Yahoo!, or Google that bring the latest incarnation of real-time back into expected normalcy.

One element of the real-time web that must not be overlooked is the need to understand it by time and by relevance. Users don’t want to solely see results based on the now. They want to also know the most relevant or authoritative of all “real-time” results. Google Blog Search allows results to be sorted by both date and relevancy. New search engines like Collecta and Topsy are looking at the real-time dilemma from the perspectives of time and relevancy respectively.

The latest real-time web is already collapsing into the larger web. It is only a matter of time before this version of “real-time” is just another view into content. And that’s the way it should be. After all, there is no “now” without a before or after.