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There's a new buzzphrase floating around - the "real-time web."

I won't mention the service this buzzword is often attached to. There's already far too much discussion of it.

Instead, I'd like to briefly explain why the "real-time web" really isn't all that important.

What is the "real-time web"? I think John Battelle of Federated Media sums it up well in two excerpts from a post he recently wrote:

"All of us are creating fountains of ambient data, from our phones, our web surfing, our offline purchasing, our interactions with tollbooths, you name it. Combine that ambient data (the imprint we leave on the digital world from our actions) with declarative data (what we proactively say we are doing right now) and you've got a major, delicious, wonderful, massive search problem, er, opportunity."

"So imagine a service that feels just like Google, but instead of gathering static web results, it gathers liveweb results - what people are saying, right now (or some approximation of now - say the past few hours or so), about the Canon EOS? And/or, you could post your query to that engine, and you could get realtime results that were created - by other humans - directly in response to you?"

There's no doubt that the internet is a powerful distribution medium for information. Never before has information been so readily accessible so quickly.

But just as more information doesn't equate to more value, "real-time" information doesn't equate to more value.

Information, without analysis, has little to no inherent value. Yet that's a fact that seems lost on those who celebrate learning about a breaking new story moments before others, regardless of whether or not they have accurate information about the story and whether they have enough information to make the news meaningful or actionable.

I know, I don't get it. I'm used to that retort.

Yet my opinion is based primarily on my experience in an area that is about as "real-time" as it gets: stock and options trading.

When you're trading the markets, and doing so with lots of money that isn't all yours, you not only have to be quick - you have to be right. Putting aside insider trading, institutions with the ability to manipulate markets, market makers, etc., the bottom line is that when I'm sitting and looking at a price chart and associated technical indicators, a shortage of real-time data isn't my problem.

My ability to analyze it is. Which is why I've been spending more and more of my time working on automated trading systems that enable a computer to analyze the data and make trades quicker than I can. Unfortunately, this doesn't apply to the real-time web as there's no way to supplement your brain with an extra CPU to analyze all the data streaming in from microblogging services (I do know that Robert Scoble has suggested Apple build an iBrain).

In his post, Battelle suggests that a person in the market for a Canon EOS might get more value out of seeing "what people are saying, right now" about the Canon EOS than he would from, say, a Google search. I disagree.

Do you really care that someone said "@timewaster i love my canon EOS" 15 minutes ago? Or would you rather read a detailed review that was written by an experienced photographer 2 months ago? Perhaps the more relevant question - which one will help you make a better purchasing decision? Thought so.

As for breaking news, ask yourself a simple question - if you learn about a major event a few minutes before it was reported by the mainstream media, what does that really do for you? Does it make your life richer? Does it provide anything actionable (i.e. an opportunity for profit)? Probably not.

The truth is that the real-time web, in the context it's being applied to, is overrated.

The really important real-time information - information from markets, supply chains, battlefields - isn't new. The real-time information that has e-hypesters excited - information from social media websites - isn't useful.

Knowing which real-time information is truly important makes all the difference.

In 1815 Nathan Rothschild used the 19th century's equivalent of the internet - his family's private network of couriers - to trade against the as-yet-officially-unknown results of the Battle of Waterloo.

For those who aren't familiar with the story, I won't spoil it but for this hint - when his courier arrived, Nathan was not greeted with a note that read "@NateDawg i just had a great lunch with the Duke of Wellington."

Drama 2.0

Published 27 February, 2009 by Drama 2.0

237 more posts from this author

Comments (5)


guy stephens

Great article and some really interesting observations about how time can influence/determine the 'value' of information. Perhaps I've missed something but I'm not sure when the web didn't have the possibility of being real time. I think the difference now is that perhaps for the first time we have not only the platform(s) but also the means by which to communicate to anyone who cares to listen/read, wherever we are, whenever we want to. Whether what we say has value is up to the individual who cares to listen/read. There are obviously instances when being first, based on the 'real-time' information at hand, is important, but only if you can capitalise on it, such as Nathan Rothschild managed to do. As always, whether the information is real-time or not, it's how you use it that counts.

over 7 years ago


Jason Salas

Really good thoughts. Well stated.

I'd like to speak in defense of the real-time web from a content creator and software developer perspective: http://jasonsalas.com/2009/03/curious-case-of-real-time-web.html

over 7 years ago



Guy you make a good point - since when has the web not enabled "real time"?

Something that I keep coming back to in my own thoughts about internet stuff is just how lacking in some sort of sense of history web "innovations" and their innovators are.

I know the average age of a web 2.0 starter-upper is about 7, but very few of the ideas I see about these days are new, and yet folk seem to care little about what happened the last time or the time before that.  Yes, the developer's toolkit is a much richer place these days, but the collective intelligence hasn't really move on that much.

One hysterical example is bloggers who have been at it for about 20 minutes (and the odd ex-wunderkid) confidently predicting the demise of "old media".  I mean, don't they realise that (to take the historical event above) The Times of London had reporters at the Battle of Waterloo...

Back on the subject of the usefulness of real time web, let me just say that you'd have to sit through a lot of pictures of cats before you saw another plane land on a river...

over 7 years ago



"The real-time information that has e-hypesters excited - information from social media websites - isn't useful."

-Similarly, when I search for information on a camera purchase, I don't go to a blog search engine or an online forum search engine. If the "real-time web" was really so powerful from a value/revenue perspective, services like icerocket.com, which can be seen as an intermediate step between the "static" and "real-time" web, would be more visited.

If there's a critical mass of reviews on Amazon or Yelp regarding a product or service, that's useful and actionable information to me. Nothing real-time about it, though.

over 7 years ago


Kristi Colvin

But wait.... there is an intangible benefit to those real-time comments like "I love my Canon EOS". At any given time of the day, people are contemplating purchase decisions. I have had tons of issues with my original Droid (bought the day they came out) which I have been very public about, and now I have been sent a Droid 2 by Verizon, which I also mentioned on Twitter. I cannot count the number of questions sent to me after mentioning something with my Droid - and the private messages with questions also sent, by people thinking about buying this product. The quick sentiment such as you describe, could be the pushing off point for someone on the cusp of making a purchase, that either sways them to buy it or influences them NOT to. That's hard to measure, but still a real facet of real-time data that shouldn't be taken for granted in my opinion. Even if people don't follow you or see you SAY it, searches often reveal how people feel about a product, company or service at a glance.

about 6 years ago

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