USA Today Goes “Reefer Madness” on the Real-Time Web

realtimemadness.jpgJon Swartz wrote a long article in USA Today this morning about the phenomenon of the real-time web. The article blames "the real-time web" for declining test scores in school, anti-social addictions, short attention spans and texting-while-driving. Swartz smooshes YouTube, social networks, online banking, location-aware search and social media marketing all under the same umbrella of doom.

We'd like to highlight Swart's work as our Real-Time Web Article of the Day because it's a great example of the same old Fear of the Internet getting a new name. As a result, USA Today readers lose an opportunity to understand an important new wave of change and opportunity.

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The real-time web is of course far more coherent and less frightening than Swartz's article. Isn't the sun setting on the era when grown adults are afraid of Facebook and cell phones?

We're highlighting articles written off-site each day about the real-time web that we think are helpful in understanding this emerging trend, all leading up to what we believe is going to be a fabulous face-to-face event on the topic: the ReadWrite Real-Time Web Summit on October 15h in Mountain View, California. Miniscule attention spans and anti-social additions are not required - in fact we expect a great day of brainstorming, collaboration and networking. Early bird registration ends tonight. But enough about us, let's talk about USA Today's fear of the real-time web.

The article's premise:

The latest iteration of the Internet -- deemed the "real-time Web" by some analysts, is exemplified by the obsessive use of PCs or cellphones for quick interactions and dips into the online information stream. This hyper-connectedness is fueled by the rise in social media and distinguished by quick, short communication and, increasingly, an absence of privacy.

The Real-Time Web's Potential

Three future, hyper-geeky, scenarios.
From a conversation with Google's Brett Slatkin, co-creator of the Pubsubhubbub protocol

  • Immediate public release of financial data for SEC compliance
  • 3D spatial imaging using sensor networks with open, standardized data transfer
  • Social networking as a decentralized communications protocol instead of on centralized corporate properties
Here's how we explained it in under 100 words:
The Real-Time Web is a paradigm based on pushing information to users as soon as it's available - instead of requiring that they or their software check a source periodically for updates. It's being implemented in social networking, search, news and elsewhere - making those experiences more like Instant Messaging and facilitating unpredictable innovations. Early benefits include increased user engagement ("flow") and decreased server loads, but these are early days.

I think our definition is clearer and more useful; Swartz clearly doesn't like the real-time web and arguably doesn't understand what it is.

Swartz's article is peppered with quotes from people in the industry, but my favorite was this one:

"It all can be distracting at times," says Kevin Weatherman, 27, who is in business development for an Internet advertising start-up in Palo Alto, Calif. He uses at least six instant-messaging services -- often at once.

Weatherman works for a real-time ad network called PubMatic; the company must have been pleased when USA Today called to talk about the real-time web. They must have been displeased when they saw that Weatherman made the mistake of mentioning the devil's spawn that is multi-network chat clients Adium or Trillian and that's what the reporter grabbed hold of.

Swartz concludes his article with a collection of rapid-fire links to various factoids about the negative consequences for society wrought by Facebook and text messaging. To be fair, not all of Swartz's criticisms seem entirely off-base or irrelevant, but focusing only on how distracting these new flows of information are is taking the easy way out.

In truth, or perhaps in addition to some of the semi-related fears Swartz brings up, the real-time web is making possible richer, more efficient communication between people and between computers. It's an exciting foundation for innovation in almost every field you can think of.

Remember though kids, when those Twitter search results get pushed to you automatically, you might think that the real-time web is fun and useful - but it's actually the beginning of the end of the rest of your life.

For a more accurate and useful discussion of this important trend, stay right here with ReadWriteWeb and join the conversation about how we can effectively utilize these new technologies.

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