Is The Real Time Web A Solution In Search Of A Problem?

I could easily lose my geek cred and early adopter license for this post, but I think a lot of non-early adopters have been wondering, what is the real-time web for? Alexander Van Elsas has an excellent post “calling bs on the real time web.” Basically, he just does not know what use it has, but he sums up the problem nicely:

Real-time web is a publisher’s thing, not a consumer thing. There are few situations, usually disasters,  where I might be in need of a real-time web. The geek will tell you that it is great to be able track what people are saying when a plane crashes, Obama is inaugurated, or a famous pop star dies. The problem I have with those examples is that life isn’t like that every day.

So, outside of emergencies and major breaking news, do people know what to use the real time web for? The mass consumer likely does not. This can be seen in the comments that Facebook receives as they inch closer to becoming the main real-time platform. Why have “the masses” not been converted into real-time zealots? This is probably due to the lack of a defining problem.

Valeria Maltoni wrote a somewhat related post today regarding the “Social Media Program Lifecycle“. The basic idea is that a marketing campaign that uses social media goes through a lifecycle, and you can expect to see a certain level of “buzz” during each part of the lifecycle. In the post, she describes a graph that visualizes the “dynamics of attention”:

…distinguishes between the actions of the company and/or agency, which are designed to create higher, artificial buzz, and the reactions of the public involved. You can see in the graphic, how those generate lower buzz, yet genuine (here we say authentic) engagement.

I recommend you read the post to get the full idea, but also notice something very important. There are zero mentions of the real-time web or Twitter specifically. Facebook is mentioned, but only in the applications perspective. Blogs and reviews are mentioned, but more in the terms of engagement. Valeria is well respected in this arena, so why does she omit mentions of real-time?

As much as it pains me to say this, the “real time web” is currently in a hype cycle and is a solution in search of a problem. The breaking news usages will not make a revenue-generating industry around this. There has to be some problem, some pain that this solves. We have seen some possibilities with reputation and brand monitoring, but that is highly focused within the more marketing aspects of any business. Is there some larger problem this solves? We cannot really say that instant communication is the game-changing thing, because instant messaging broke that barrier years ago.

Twitter probably is not the real long-term winner for the real-time web. Twitter, and the concept of status updates, is really just an enabler. What problems can the real-time web solve? And what type of application will really solve that problem? Whoever figures that out will be worth a lot of money.

24 thoughts on “Is The Real Time Web A Solution In Search Of A Problem?

  1. It’s us geeks that are hyping it 😉

    The rest of the world just continues without worrying about it. I am not saying that it couldn’t become important. But right now, it doesn’t add a lot of value.

    I agree that it is a solution for a problem we do not have at the moment. It just sounds very sexy to geeks.


  2. This is a much more superlative buzz word then it is credited for, it is the most realistic and relevant word for it’s meaning, I mean when Web 2.0 was proclaimed how much longer did it take the average geek (not the hardcore early adopter) to truly realise what it meant), the flow of information in the “realtime web” is becoming a hugely influential median, and it’s a shame that people can write entire blog posts calling BS on the “realtime web”, citing the same old same old analogy of how people are rapidly consuming the realtime web. Everyone needs to look past the stereotypical meanings of things, as discussed by other influencers and look at the broader picture for data on the web!


  3. I think this (the missing problem) is what Amazon Mechanical Turk will be bringing when people realize what it means besides the obvious work exchange platform. After using AMT for a small transcription job, I saw an interesting exchange going on between workers and between requesters. Although Amazon has not facilitated a channel for communications, there are many channels available through forums, podcasts, live chats, etc.
    The combination of real work or research results and the social network created by Mturk shows great potential.



  4. Alexander,

    I know we are hyping it, but I have been focusing purely in specific areas like marketing and brand monitoring. Others have been using the “real time” idea as the future of the internet and that is the main focus of much of the hype.

    I realized when commenting on your blog that I had way too much to say, so I had to write a post 🙂


  5. Josh

    I understand the usage of the “real time” term, and do not have a problem with its use, unlike the web2.0 term. But almost all of the successfully revenue generating businesses fill a need of some sort. The real time web is not doing that yet. The data generated by the real time web could be the major revenue source (and I have said much on that idea), but we are still missing the “real” applications of this idea. As I said in the post, I think Twitter is just enabling this, and there will be something new that will really capitalize on it.


  6. Turkers Talking,

    You have an interesting point. This could be one of those things that does benefit greatly, mainly the communication between geographically distributed teams. We are really just starting with a lot of it, so it should be interesting to see how all of this evolves in the next year.


  7. As for “real time”, what are we to do about the multiplicity of channels? I replied on FF and here (using different names, sorry!)

    My particular communication interests, of which MTurk is a burgeoning one, could be served by Ning Networks, forums, microforums (aka Laconica and omb), Twitter, FriendFeed, Yammer as you said, and a dozen other tools. At the moment, it’s the one that takes off quickest and gathers the most momentum that will usually become “it”.

    A couple of decades ago, you wanted to speak to someone, you picked up the phone, it was that simple. Today, if you are using the right channel, you can talk to the CEO of a company, but you can also miss the chance to do some other real time action.


  8. @Joshua

    You say
    “the flow of information in the “realtime web” is becoming a hugely influential median, and it’s a shame that people can write entire blog posts calling BS on the “realtime web”.

    @Joshua, it is a shame that I am questioning the geeks echoing each other that it is the greatest thing, without actually giving me compelling reasons why? Give me a good reason and I’ll take back my words. Until then, I don’t think its a shame that there are people who do not echo what everyone else is saying already. That’s BS too.


  9. Yes. After reading just your title I immediately thought of the Cable news networks. They give you very little and are filled with fluff most of the time. But, when tragedy, emergency, or breaking news strikes they are very useful. The real-time web is a novelty. Novel but for me as the consumer…nah.


  10. fpettit

    The parallel to cable news networks is interesting. They were filling a need a long time ago because there was no place to get news except during the regular newscast around 6pm. Part of their benefit was that they had opinions from various types of people as well. Social media is very similar in that respect.


  11. I guess the tradeoff is against how much damage can be done to a brand in real-time. That sets an upper bound on the amount of money it is worth to engage in real-time brand monitoring. For example, how much did Motrin’s sales suffer as a result of the mommyblogger kerfluffle in late 2008 ( ? I suspect Johnson and Johnson has quantified the impact. In addition to the money wasted on the ad campaign, they lost sales.

    Getting rapid feedback of an ad campaign is valuable. Early feedback allows changes to be made before the entire ad budget has been spent. If there is excessive blowback, the ads can be pulled. With mainstream ads in periodicals and TV, instantaneous feedback isn’t particularly valuable: they can’t pull the ads on short notice. With online media real-time damage to the brand can be reacted to far more quickly, so real-time feedback is worth more.

    There has been much discussion recently of huge “branding” ad budgets for mainstream media, and how comparatively little of it has yet migrated online. That money will move to online campaigns when the advertisers see compelling value in doing so, i.e. good return on investment. Minimizing blowback via real-time monitoring is one value the online ad market can provide and mainstream media cannot.

    (EDITOR: sorry for the delay, this got marked as spam)


  12. DGentry

    You mention something that could be a very big deal, redefining online advertising. Because the feedback loop is almost instantaneous, more advertising dollars could be funneled to online campaigns. If the monitoring tools become sophisticated enough, it could drastically change the way advertising works online. That could be very interesting.


  13. Alexander,

    Your opinion is certainly as important as anyone else’s and in fact I haven’t personally know of anyone else calling out the realtime web like you did, so congrats of being brutally honest 🙂


  14. Hi Rob,

    I enjoyed the post but disagree on your point: “The breaking news usages will not make a revenue-generating industry around this.”

    @BreakingNewsOn is gaining steam in terms of followers and $$$$ brought in. I think there may be a great business model there as well as in other forms of real time news reporting (in fact, in a sad way, this may be what dooms the hyper local newspapers.)

    Just my opinion.


  15. Brandon,

    I had no idea that @BreakingNewsOn was making money. That could change things a bit, but there still seems to be a huge hole where the revenue is concerned. It could be that they are just the exception, or maybe the starting point.


  16. One other thought: real-time news delivery does have significant value. Day traders are far fewer in number than at the height of the stock market boom, but there is a significant market of subscribers where quick delivery of updates has real monetary value.

    Also there is demand in the Enterprise software space for real-time delivery of all sorts of information. This is the kind of application which would have been developed using the Teknekron/TIBCO Information Bus (or similar middleware) ten years ago. Now, it would now benefit from real-time web technologies. It won’t be for people to chat about cilantro versus bacon (like friendfeed), it would focus on market news / inventory levels / sales trends / etc. Anything where the data is timely, but where a human stays in the loop to decide what to do about it.


  17. Robert,

    If you wouldn’t have, then maybe it should be in your feed reader 🙂 My thinking is that there is something bigger that we have not figured out yet.


  18. @Robert you are hours late. My initial post was more than 12 hours ago, Rob’s shortly after that 😉 so what was the real-time point you were trying to make? It’s a publishers thing, not a consumer need (yet)


  19. Technically, publish/subscribe is in many ways superior to polling. That in itself is a good enough reason to seriously consider the technologies over which the marketing label “real-time web” has been pasted.

    Not everything is asynchronous. Collaborative writing and chat for example require a real-time infrastructure. And Google Wave shows that a whole new class of real-time collaborative applications will soon be unleashed upon users – a bunch of medical specialists contributing to a diagnostic process, or a bunch of IT engineers poring over an obscure bug on a production system are both examples where real-time collaboration is the difference between sharing contributions back-and-forth and actually engaging in a conversation.

    Real-time on the social web is not chiefly about time critical information – it is much more closely related to people swarming over a subject. In the traditional western office, people exchange memos – but when a problem occurs they gather where they find each other and start chatting. That is the real-time web. It is only the tip of a continuum of collaborative tools that cover the whole spectrum of social distances between users.


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