- February
Posted By : Adrian Chan
The state of realtime culture, and the future inter-subjective web

It has been a busy week for realtime social media enthusiasts. Google’s launch of Buzz has given us something to try out and to talk about, and this has been the biggest test of a new online messaging platform in quite a while. After digging into details for the past few days, I feel it worthwhile to drift up momentarily for a high-altitude flyover.

The way I see it, that is in the online world according to Chan, social media are currently undergoing a radical if not inevitable transformation. We have come off the page, out of the network, and with that struck forth from territorial identity for nomadic travels and connections. We identify less now by where we are from and more by who we connect to. We maintain this identity less by identity through place and more by identity through sociality.

I’m speaking not just metaphorically, but directly to this realtime culture in which we now spend so much of our time, and to which we commit so much of our attention.

The siloed world of mass media, with its disconnected channels, its fixed real estates, and branded identities, is receding from relevance and by virtue of acceding ground to global nomadism, losing its claim to authority. A new mode of production is in place — one based not on manufactured goods, not on information, but on communication. And social media are its mode of production.

Social media may now be approaching the point of coming off the page entirely, reaching a condensation point (system threshold) at which stage communication may connect to and permit interaction by means of mediated talk anywhere through and on any screen or device.

Our relation to activity in the online social world is shifting from space to time. Attention should always have been measured in terms of time. We do not occupy space in the online world — we relate, in time and for stretches of time, to content and people.

Time is now multiply threaded, it is more often discontinuous than continuous, knitted and connected together out of intersections and connections that weave a social fabric more closely resembling the smooth and non-hierarchical architecture of felt, than the old, striated and linear designs of pre-patterned weave.

Time discontinuous is constituted on interruptions and distractions, our own individual focus of attention being the only synthesizing continuity possible. Separate times and timelines for each of us, in a world that is incapable of mediating truly shared time. A social world of adjacency and contiguity but lacking the higher and moving power of togetherness. We are next to, but not with, each other. And are our increasingly our own movers.

As we use media to stretch our relationships with people and interests across time and space, a bifurcation emerges between our own inner experience of now — attention, focused — and the online world’s capture and persistence of now-for-anytime. We are here now, online, but leave behind a wake of meaning that once digitized is durable without decay. The temporality of online is of connectedness, not continuity, for findability and visibility are the constraints on the “value” of the flotsam and jetsam that drifts in the flow of a realtime streaming world.

The activity streams in which we now live flows unceasingly, a river of news and information, rippling and eddying when currents are sustained for their currency. Trendlines on the surface of flow. The old world of territory, with its stocks of knowledge, its piles of treasure, was a world of allotment. The new world of flow, with its moving trends, its exchange dynamics, is a world of apportionment. The old media capital value of stocks and piles now washing downstream in a flow that values currency.

Currency flows, values dynamically representing present and changing interest and value, an attention economy made productive by means — you guessed it — of communication, threaten to displace old media capital investments. Social capital, valued not for its number, its pile size, but for its currency when put in play, and deeply contingent not on audience size but on its distribution by audience engagement and participation, is the currency of currency — the realtime flow.

A flow that we view not standing on its shores, but while drifting within it. For our perspective and lens on the flow is ours and ours alone — threaded as it were on our own, unique, and personal line of time. We live in our own streamtimes, even as we seek to connect.

This is a world not of information value, but of communication value. An open state of talk in which every statement and reference supplies connectedness to the timeless world of online. A world not of information but of meaning, not of static content but dynamic and relational action. Not of know-ledge but of know-who and know-how. Social, not archival.

We are perched now at the threshold of another shift of paradigm. A world of interconnected streams, of intersections in flow and of dramatic escalations in amplitudes, of constructively-interfering ripples and waves, as well as chaos, turbulence, and noise. Meaning in the social cannot thrive on communication alone. It is only with social action and activity, that is, by means of relational connectedness, that it is cemented and validated socially.

This paradigm, of action streams perhaps, requires coupling, reciprocity, mutuality, for the proper binding that glues social connections. Talk not just spoken but heard and listened to. Talk not echoed but replied to. Talk that is not just the murmur of a babbling brook, the language of being, but the doing of becoming: communication that is action.

Streams, intersecting and cross-referential, permitting not just identities but socialities. A social media age in which communication is action, in which messages perform, and in which information is relation.

This is how I see it today. Social networking is rapidly becoming communication. Our profiles serve as resources, distributed identities but serving evergreen interests and referenced when the relevance adds value. The universe of social networks is itself becoming connected and in its connectedness, it matters less to the user where identity resources are kept and more how they are protected, secured, and made visible. And as networks become communication, communication becomes increasingly networked.

The next steps then, if possible in a world of un-coupled messaging, would be to enable interaction by messaging. To lift social activities out of their containers and architectures and embed them where possible in streams of social activity. And to architect, around communication, the meta data and state required for a truly inter-subective web.


  • Interesting thoughts. I recently remarked in a post that, “As people increasingly access the Web and engage online communities on the go, the notion that this is happening on the net seems quaint.” The thinking was along the same lines but with respect to the way the ubiquitous digital infrastructure enhances the ability of ethnography to deliver insights about socio-cultural practices.

    However, I see these changes more in terms of a shift between place and space relative to temporal patterns than in terms of time per se.


  • I agree with your take on this … but when I articulate this to the many nonprofits I work with who don't live our always on lifestyle, they give me looks of horror. Do you see a new kind of digital divide one between – real-time online – and offline. Sort of reminds of a joke that someone used to tell about their marriage, it goes something like this .. “We have a mixed marriage – I'm online, he's offline.”

  • Good to see you Larry. I've never been comfortable with use of “space” or place as a metaphor simply because we don't occupy the same space or place — and unless interactions occur in a shared space, are located in the same place, the metaphor is misleading. Which I suspect you agree with.

    Interestingly, or perhaps ironically, geolocation-based services are again not only about location/place but about connecting that by means of communication to the online world (which is “elsewhere”).

    I do think temporality is undergoing a change, but in terms of attention, presence, awareness, focus… in other words lived time not time in the abstract.

  • Beth, I make sure to give myself a look of horror now and then! I think it's important to take time offline because online connectedness is different. Is there a divide between online and offline people? Probably. There's probably also a limit to how many people would find twitter engaging, a limit to how many people really want to share their personal lives online, and a limit to the number of people who want to be communicating in this way.

    I don't know that that's a “divide” tho — is there a divide between people who do yoga and those who don't? Those who eat junk food and those who don't? We can call it a divide but it's essentially just a difference, and sometimes calling it a divide implies political or socio-economic distinctions that probably aren't the best explanation for why some do and some don't do online.

  • Well, I just came back from India and did a session called “Reaching the Bottom of the Pyramid” Many social change makers are skeptical of whether or not technology is an essential or even a technique to solve complex social problems.

    In Cambodia, 1% of the population has a computer in their home. Most people access the Internet by paying by the minute in Internet cafes. My blogger friends tell me that they can't blog every day because it is too expensive. So they write out their blog posts by hand, then go to the Internet cafe to type them up. They also can't spend as much time scanning information online and so while we can “screen suck” to hour hearts content – they can consume as much electronic information. So, we process faster, we're aware of more .. so yes there is a divide.

    I'm thinking about the recent study from Kaiser Foundation that talked about the amount of times kids in the US spend online – 7 hours a day – up from 6 hours a day. That is screen time – video game, tv or internet.

    So, in a way, American's are probably more likely to evolve an always on culture, lifestyle than many other parts of the world. So, what does this say about us?

    Just pondering – really enjoyed your piece!

  • Beth,

    Ah well if you look at useage globally then absolutely — but as you note, the divide in this case is economic. I thought you meant in terms of practices. In my experience w nonprofits, outreach efforts that could benefit from social media are mitigated somewhat by the different practices of audiences in the non profit world. Somewhat. And I think that's just a matter of lifestyle.

    To the points behind the most, then, is a communication-based social networking paradigm shift going to happen? Is it simply too much — too many messages, to much replying, too many notifications — for some? A natural move forward given twitter, status updating practices, mobile connectivity — or a technology-driven initiative that could result not only in excessive communication but an implosion of social services resulting from too much noise and not enough relevant signal?

  • Actually, I don't agree with your assumptions. Places are not simply locations, taken in a physical sense. Places are locations plus context. Most geo-location services that incorporate social media implicitly recognize this point, though earlier people-finder services sold by the mobile phone providers did not.

    As I noted in a recent post, “As people increasingly access the Web and engage online communities on the go, the notion that this is happening on the net seems quaint.” In other words, people interacting via ubiquitous computing environments are not online but rather engaging cultural practices that they weave in and out of their everyday places. The spaces through which they move are, however, not simply inert but also shaped by the availability, or not, of interactional resources to support those cultural practices.

    Take a look at Johanna Brewer and Paul Dourish's “Storied Spaces” if what I'm trying to convey isn't clear.


  • Sure thing — I think you know that I view place as situated also. And as situated interaction having all manner of contextual meaning. I don't disagree w you but “place” this is way off the main point of this post and would be a different post entirely.

  • Hey Adrian, you are right of course regarding the relationship between space, place, and time as requiring attention unto themselves.

  • I am just getting into social networking and realizing its benefits of being able to access such a large audience.

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