Twitter is the topic de jour. And, as far as I can tell, most people don’t have it quite right. While it is true that Twitter is a social network. And it is also true that Twitter is filled with much more ambient noise than curated knowledge. The power of Twitter is, first and foremost, the fact that it is a “real time data stream.”
Real time, as in, “it is happening right now” is a not new. Human beings have been able to communicate in real time since the advent of language. As a species, we have been able to communicate in real time over long distances since smoke signals. Admittedly, the technology got better over time. Semaphore flags were pretty close to real time as was Telegraphy (invented and brought to commercial use circa 1804-1837). Of course, we’ve had personal experience with instant real time communication in the United States since March 10, 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell spoke into his first woking Telephone with the immortal words, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.”
The ability to communicate in real time, to and from remote locations, has had profound sociological ramifications. As you well know, the speed of information has been directly equated to economic success since the beginning of recorded history. If you know something before your competitors do, you will almost always be able to profit from the knowledge. Real time information is always valuable.
It is one of the biggest paradigm shifts in recent memory and it is going to change the way be behave.
Fast-forward a hundred years (more or less) to the emergence of the World Wide Web. The first Web sites were static pages filled with text, graphics and links to other Web pages. In a very short time, millions of them had been created. In the early days of the medium, having a Web site was like putting your business card on a wall of 10 million business cards. It was useful if you knew where it was, but it was practically useless otherwise. For obvious reasons, the static web spawned the search engine industry.
Just after the turn of the century, RSS (really simple syndication) started to become the de facto way to syndicate Web content. What this meant, in practice, was that you could make a change to your Web site and people (or machines) that subscribed to your RSS feed would be notified or actually see the content.
Which brings us to the next stage in the evolution of the Web — Real Time Data.
Twitter is based on Real Time or “push” technology. The moment the message is completed, it is sent out in real time. “Push” is about “now” and it is the notion of “push” that makes Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and all of the other social networks with news feeds “new” and spectacularly exciting!
Note: Many people mistakenly believe that RSS is a “push” technology. It is not. Most RSS readers poll the servers that they are subscribed to at pre-determined intervals and, when they find something new, they “pull” it down from the server. This is important for you to know for two reasons. 1) You will sound like a genius at the next cocktail party where this issue comes up and, 2) RSS is not intrinsically compatible with the “push” technologies of the Real Time Web.
Also, Push technology is not new. Microsoft’s Exchange e-mail server pushes data to your e-mail client (like your BlackBerry or Outlook) as soon as it arrives. As opposed to “pull” e-mail systems that request data from the e-mail server at specific intervals like IMAP or POP3 protocols.
Lastly, the current proprietary clients for Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, etc are also “pull.” However, the data is accessible (and can be made available) through streaming API’s. If you are an engineer and would like to have a Socratic debate about push and pull, find me on e-mail, it is not the point of this article! Normal people, just think “real time.”
A quick review: First we had static Web sites. Then, we had Web sites that could notify us when they were updated. Now, we have the Real Time Web, which is powered by real time streaming data. It is one of the biggest paradigm shifts in recent memory and it is going to change the way be behave.
We have had tools that enable instant one-to-one and one-to-many communications between remote locations for all of our lives. We all know how to use them. In fact, the conventions of the remote communications tools are almost identical to the conventions of our biological short-range communications tools.
The Real Time Web gives us two new tools that we actually don’t physiologically know how to use; the ability to communicate many-to-one as well as many-to-many.
The only people I know of who have any experience dealing with real time many-to-one communication are kindergarten teachers. They routinely stand in the middle of 20 screaming kids who have not yet learned how to raise their hands and, magically, kindergarten teachers seem to be able to triage the communicative needs of their charges in real time.
Most unfortunately, there is no human experience that allows for the processing of many-to-many communication. To do this, and to practically deal with many-to-one, we need tools.
Twitter (and the other social network news feeds) are one part of the first generation of this tool set. A real time search, sentiment and zeitgeist engine like PeopleBrowsr.com is the next step. Then we will all need some practice.
“Now” is powerful. I often get asked, “Why would anyone care if I was going out for a latte?” This always makes me chuckle. If you have a few dozen followers and your social network is GPS equipped the proper tweet is, “I’m going out for a latte, does anybody want one?” It’s not a tweet for 10,000 followers, but it is a valid use of the technology. And, it is behavior-changing.
Go have a look at yammer.com and see if it would help you. If you have a GPS enabled BlackBerry, download Ubertweet and see what happens next time you find yourself on a business trip without a dinner companion and you tweet, “At the Westin Peachtree thinking about dinner.” That exact tweet, at 4:30pm, created a dinner party for 30 of my friends/followers who all happened to be in Atlanta by 7:30pm that evening.
Open up PeopleBrowsr.com and search 10 different, but related, key words in 10 different columns and tell me you don’t see the extraordinary power of “now.”
It will take a little bit of time, but before you know it, we will see the next Google emerge. It may be PeopleBrowsr, it may be something like it, or something completely different. It will use a combination of real time human filtering, machine filtering and a series of algorithms to enable us to look at the real time web and understand what we are seeing.
People are empowered by communicating. The real time web gives everyone with something to say a worldwide stage. The real time web gives people with insights and experience a way to collectively filter information into knowledge. The real time web takes data and gives it context. There is very little information that is more important than what is happening right now.