The realtime web is living on borrowed time. Not in the sense that time’s running out on realtime. But in the sense that the realtime web actually involves two kinds of time. One is the time in which information is delivered. We call that realtime. The other is the user’s time, which I’m going to call streamtime.
Realtime is immediate, streamtime is borrowed. The realtime web operates immediately. The streamtime experience is immediacy.
A lot has been said about realtime and our immediate access to information, but little has been said about streamtime, or the immediacy with which we experience realtime. And since streamtime relates to our consumption of realtime content, the concept might be worth unpacking.
The web collapses the distance between production and consumption. In realtime web terms, the stream delivers information instantaneously. The user, in streamtime, has access to it as if it were there. So where realtime information delivery has to do with simple clock time, streamtime involves the immediacy with which we relate to realtime information. This immediacy is actually a kind of proximity — of the kind sometimes called “ambient intimacy.”
Streamtime is about proximity. And proximity combines two concepts: closeness and now. Immediacy as here, and immediately as now. And since there is no “space” on the internet, when we say proximity, we mean it in different terms: not spatial distance but presence.
But when we say presence, we usually mean individual presence: the presence of other people sensed through realtime social tools. So the streamtime experience actually contains two separate kinds of proximity: that of the information itself (delivered in realtime) and that of its sender.
Of course, we don’t think of the information source as a sender — we think of the person. It’s this trick of imagination that allows us to “feel” connected through the wire. (What I’ve called “approximity” in the past.)
For example, streamtime, not realtime, is the dimension in which attention is paid. Attention is awareness (directed mental attention, or focus), and time. Attention is paid by when we mentally select something to pay attention to, and is paid for as long as we hold that in our awareness. So streamtime then involves a commitment of attention to a steady stream of incoming information, much of which is messages (updates, tweets, etc).
Some of these messages are personal messages, some are system messages. Personal messages are communication of a sort. System messages are as if sent by a person, insofar as they report on a user’s activity. They are sent automatically, but we read them as if they were personal messages and can sense who they are about. Activity updates may not be in the words of the user, but they’re nonetheless a proxy for communication.
Streamtime, then, not only takes attention paid to the information and content itself, but also takes the attention we pay to each other, and which we spend by communicating. Where information is just that, information, communication is actionable. We can respond to it, reflect on what a person meant, reply, or forward (RT) it. Or rather, we can respond to the person, not to “it.”
Streamtime raises the constant possibility that we might take up communication with a person — at a minimum it requires the increased attention we pay to people (over information straight up). This is the demand on the attention economy staged by realtime and experienced in realtime: that we think not only about what’s been said but about the person who said it.
Social tools to help with the demands of interacting and communicating may be an area still ripe for innovation. These demands are real, and they affect not only users and how they maintain friendships, but also brands and how they connect to customers. If the cost of realtime is paid in streamtime, then communication, not just information, is the problem we’re facing.