How to Deal with the Real Time Web: Navigating the River

The social web is moving beyond just asynchonus relationships to real time information passing.

Take last week, while I was on the phone with my dentist in San Jose and I was in the Peninsula and an earthquake occurred. It originated in San Jose, and the excited office manager told me she’d just experienced an earthquake. 5 seconds later, I felt the aftershock in my own house, and then tweeted out “just felt an earthquake”. Seconds later, I opened the Twitter search tool and tracked all the earthquake mentions, and there were hundreds within 30 seconds. As Steve Gillmor suggests, we could eventually track the origination and speed of an event, from the epicenter to the resulting waves for earthquakes and other events. Oh, and Twitter was faster in tracking than the government’s Geological Survey Earthquake site.

When you think about it, information travels faster on Twitter around the globe faster than the speed of sound. This is also very scary.

Today, Friendfeed launched it’s much anticipated redesign, and it resembles a real time flow of information. It resembles twitter like input screens, then social objects flow down the stream, with commenters chiming in around each object. It’s very hard to keep track.

Challenges to Navigating the “River of News”
As the web continues to move faster and faster towards real-time (we see this in Twitter and elements of Facebook), it creates several challenges:

  • If you’re not watching all the time, you’ll miss something
  • An incredible amount of hay is created with very few needles
  • Managing these feeds take effort, you have to setup filters, lists, groups, and manage it.
  • You’re going to get less work done if you watch, and participate in the real-time web.
  • New Social Tools and Processes to Emerge
    If the social web is a ‘river of news’ then we’re going to need new sea-faring technologies to manage it:

  • Anchors We need more anchors to slow it down and make sense of it, Friendfeed offers a ‘pause’ button that actually freezes the stream, allowing users to navigate the content.
  • Dams and Distibutaries Dams will stop the flow of content (users will unsubscrbe) and distributary are rivers that split off from the main river, as a result you’ll see a need to use filters and lists to group people in smaller categories.
  • Maps and Compasses are needed to help guide us to what’s important. Expect digests, analysis, and those who boil down what matters to matter more than ever. Traditional reporters will help make sense of thousands of opinions.
  • The big challenge: with many of us creating our own rivers of news, who has time to drink it all in?

    38 Replies to “How to Deal with the Real Time Web: Navigating the River”

    1. I’ve been thinking of Live stream monitoring ( ) and you have some really good points, especially the fact that since it is a continuous stream, content is missed since it is real-time.

      I think that the next step are tools that do more serve content. They have to tell us about the content and allow us to respond (action).

      Beyond dams, time control would be very useful, being able to shift to a point in time, instead of freeze.

    2. Jeremiah,

      As always a very thoughtfull post, this ties in to information overload that Knowledge Workers have to deal with increasingly.

      How to filter the value-adding Signal from RSS feeds/updates-noise? It™s inevitable to miss out on some information/news especially if you™re following developments within green fields such as Tech/Web related news, personally I have a few cornerstones, such as your blog feed for example and some mailings that I use to keep an ear to the ground, the more times I see a certain topic echoed by certain trusted sources in the know, the greater the chance of it being relevant.


    3. Since this firehose of information is in real-time, I’m sure the anchors and filters can’t be far behind.

      But i still haven’t found one i really like for Twitter, and now i need one for FriendFeed and one for SocialText, and on and on.

    4. Great post. I especially agree that we’ll need to use filters to organize the information coming down the stream.

      But I still beg the question from time-to-time whether or not Twitter and FriendFeed has caused mainstream social app design (as evidenced by Facebook’s most recent redesign) to be tailored towards a small portion of the social networking population that spends a good portion of their day using these services. Most people can’t sort through these stream-like apps because they’re not on there all day. Yes, they can use these tools you mention to help slow things down and sort through it, but that’s based on the presumption they’ll take the time (or have the time) to set those tools up. It seems to me the decision to go this design route (especially with Facebook) wasn’t caused by a groundswell of normal users, but instead a few influential people in the valley.


    5. An awesome quote that would be even better without the typos 😉

      “information travels faster on Twitter around the globe faster than the speed of sound.”

      Great observations! Thanks for all your hard work.

    6. Why should you want to consume all the information?

      It’s not as if you could already keep up with info from TV or literature for instance. Maybe Twitter only helps us realize there’s that goes for the web too. There’s just too much interesting stuff on the web to keep up with.

      So no worries, just think of a mechanism to get notified about stories that match your interests the most and make the most of it, just as you do for any other medium.

    7. I also believe that we are going to need more “navigators” … or people/systems that begin to filter and “edit” the content flows. If you look at historical patterns in prior media forms, there are people/companies that become the itermediaries that consume large amounts of information and then produce smaller outbound streams.

      The Editor of a newspaper or magazine has this role … picking and choosing what goes into an “issue”. With real-time flows, I believe that we might begin to see better search solutions, or “rewteeting” services that we can subscribe to, which will then become the filters creating refined outbound feeds.

      I always like to look at this as “humaneural” behaviors … where humans take on near neural behavior in having hundreds or thousands of input signals, and then generate far fewer outbound signals.

      The interesting problem is how do we find the smaller number of these filtered feeds, that provide beneficial streams of information to us … with the occassional “unanticipated” content that can cause unexpected results.

    8. There’s information (what you call news) and there’s knowledge. The difference is, very simply speaking, in “our judgment” (ability to decide whether to discard or keep new info to create/add to existing knowledge). We were already submerged with information but today’s hyper-connected, massively parallel world is just pushing our limits even further. Can we match, at the individual level, such a challenge? I believe we can’t all alone, it’s too much too fast and we’re just not equipped for it. I see a place for a function that will take the massive flow of information and decide what to keep/what to discard. It will be a highly distributed, parallel, almost organic function ‘above us’ (i.e: in the community where we operate). I read some folks who believe twitter can play a role in it because it helps sorts point of view on the same kind of data.

    9. The only people who have time/desire to drink it all in are either (a) those who are bored and merely killing time on the Web, or (b) those whose job is directly tied to their being “tuned in”.

      While many social media mavens *think* it’s their job to be tuned in, it’s usually rather a hobby and the latter group is much smaller than the former.

      For the majority of us, the social tools and processes already mostly exist to filter this river of information — they’re our employees, partners, customers, friends and family. I’ve learned that as I get busier, it’s ok to neglect my RSS reader and twitter stream — somehow all the important stuff gets to me anyway.

    10. I have to confess that I agree with Jordan Mitchell. And to take JO’s analogy of the river, individuals are drowning in information and, dare I say it, business is in danger of being totally inundated by the waters from the information river. Surely we don’t need to be that connected? Hence why aggregators, lists, widgets, feeds etc are all good but are probably no replacement for good old common sense.

    11. I believe this goes to my theory that social networks will get smaller and more specialized (read: relevant to me) over the upcoming years. We’re expanding the internet to its limits (in terms of ability for an individual user to process information), and now it’s time to bring it back to a point of actual usefulness.

    12. I think that the answer is diversionary projects. The user needs to find a way to control the input rather than be flooded with information.

      The secret in my opinion is to decide what information that you want, then have it brought to you. Many are using our tool Techrigy SM2 to filter & aggregate info on topics & bring it to them.

      I hope that your trip to MN is enjoyable! It’s not so cold anymore, although we still have too much snow up here.

    13. Dear Jeremy, good points indeed and about time we spend some extra time discussing such critical issues.

      John Blossom pointed me to your post right after your publication but I have decided to wait a few days to see the comments and views on this front before contributing mine.

      Personally I think Scott C. Lemon really nailed it. he wrote above in the comments:

      “I also believe that we are going to need more navigators ¦ or people/systems that begin to filter and edit the content flows…”

      I have been writing about such emerging role and need since 2004, and have outlined a new human-driven I call the “newsmaster” dedicated to the very task of selecting sources, aggregating news and content in the backend and then manually picking, juxtaposing and republishing those relevant to a very specific audience or theme through an output format I have called a “news-radar”.

      It is exactly as Scott writes: “If you look at historical patterns in prior media forms, there are people/companies that become the intermediaries that consume large amounts of information and then produce smaller outbound streams.”

      If you Google yourself the terms, “newsmaster”, “newsmastering” and “newsradars” you can read more of what I have been having in mind.

      No matter how many RSS feeds you subscribe to and how many filters you use, it is impossible to monitor a specific topic effectively without running into tons of unrelevant or duplicate content that comes into your stream simply because filter aren’t intelligent enough to recognize and classify news as a human being could do.

      “I always like to look at this as humaneural behaviors ¦ where humans take on near neural behavior in having hundreds or thousands of input signals, and then generate far fewer outbound signals.”

      This is what, inspired by Stephen Downes I wrote 5 years back:

      Check also:

    14. Great post! This metaphor of the live stream as river is an emerging model that has great relevance. We once spoke of highways -something we ride upon -now it is all liquid – and we are submerged or…we can still ride on top and still treat it like a highway. I’ve been thinking about this concept of the social media river. Here are some recent thoughts I had:

      Old media (print, radio, TV,etc.): flowed one way into pools, ponds, lakes. Information was ‘siloed’
      New media (Web 2.0 enabled, web-based – sites, rss, blogs, networks, apps, widgets,etc. ): flows in all directions, it’s a great network of feedback loops, information doesn’t stop flowing.

      Many of us are still using the web (including me!) as a series of closed silos or ponds – the more activated we become in the arena of Web 2.0/Social Media the deeper we go -learning to go from
      riding on top of the conversational/info flow (in metaphorical boats – or tubes or just floating on top) to swimming and eventually breathing, and existing totally in that environment (like fish). It requires a new set of
      lungs, a new purpose, new methods, new philosophical underpinnings.

      Web 2.0 is merely the evolution of the World Wide Web. It was a place of conversation and collaboration from the start. It has always had a social purpose, a relational or human aim. (see Tim Berner Lee’s book: Weaving The World Wide Web)

      The river = is the web based conversation/info stream that is enabled by Social Media technologies – the river as metaphor is a way of using the Web – it is possible to not submerge yourself in it, and the business world often confuses fishing with becoming a fish.

      Unique ways of relating in the new river: in old media there was a preacher and an audience. In new media -everyone is submerged (or riding on top) in a flow of mutual dialogue. Gates are crashed, hierarchies are diminished, the feedback and comments is now equally as important as the initial content.

      -networks, communities and horizontal relational structures are now the means by which we travel within the river – like ‘schools’ of fish -learning from each other -and traveling in rings of mutual trust – we are herds, flocks, tribes fixed on singular niches, passions, causes, shared values, missions, purpose. Your fellow fish and you move in an awareness of each other – often moving as one body.

      -there are undercurrents in the river, there are bottom-feeders, there are rapids, there are shallow areas where those riding on top are in great peril, there are waterfalls, there are tributaries (mobile web? etc?), the river is going somewhere, the river dumps into the ocean/sea eventually (this is called convergence -where the web merges (via new technology) with life and the web so intertwined that the world will be a whole new submerged landscape (complete with sunken ships and great white sharks, as well as beautiful coral reefs,etc…)

      Many people right now have just noticed the river. Some people are drowning. Some people are teaching others how to ride on top. Other people are becoming fish and learning how to swim in ‘schools’. Media, education, business, causes, all these will find that these ‘schools’ are the most progressive places to advance into the future of their organizations.

      The river is: conversation, information, dialogue, community, social technology, decentralized, demassified, hyper-everything, (see Leonard Sweet’s book Soul Tsunami)


    15. My main concern about the Real Time Web is not about how someone can keep up with all the information, it is more about how are we going to index all this in a way that makes sense?

      This is the new challenge, 10 years after the introduction of Google’s PageRank algorithm.

      If someone can’t keep up with all the flow of information, we have to provide a way to search this real time web. As the content is produced mainly by people on social networks, are we going to need some sort of PeopleRank? We’ll see.

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