On designing time for talk, and real time feeds

ā€œA timetable, such as a schedule of the times at which trains run, might seem at first sight to be merely a temporal chart. But actually it is a time-space ordering device, indicating both when and where trains arrive. As such, it permits the complex coordination of trains and their passengers and freight across large tracts of time-space.ā€ — Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity

Just came across this passage, and I had to immediately think about its implications for social interaction design. We live in a time when real time media are structured by chronological flow. Communication and talk are transformed by the medium into information, which is then distributed in the order it was published. Media consumption occurs on a first come first served basis.

This forces those who are keen to curate content, and to reshare and distribue what they find interesting, to live in the stream. It’s an enormously time-consuming occupation. And whether curators suffer from real attention deficit disorder or not, time spent in the flow is an unnatural kind of time. An external, discontinuous, interruptive and distracting kind of time — very ungroovy and arbitrary.

Feeds are everywhere and having become a common way of producing activity on social networking sites and services, they dominate our present-day consumption of social media content. But saying that is to say also that talk has been left to flow with very little meta-level organization. Talk flows in the form of messages that, for the most part, lack both a targeted recipient and a topical description. Status updates, tweets, posts don’t even have the basic addressing and subject lines of email. There’s no browsing this kind of talk — you simply have to be “in it.”

Could it be that we want for some meta organization of feeds and streams? If so, then perhaps we need to recognize that information flow is a form of talk. A form of talk that could be better consumed, and which would be more useful and compelling, if it had some of the basic organization of face-to-face talk. And for those not in the talk, more meta data about talk so that it can be more easily browsed and recovered.

The alternative, it seems to me, is that we continue to live with feeds as unstructured and chronological flows of stand-alone messaging. We’ll eventually have filters and search by which to separate relevance from noise. And with which to find lost gems. This model may work for those of us heavily invested in the medium. But for the vast majority, it is bound to seem overwhelming, ineffective, and arbitrary.

I think this is worth chipping away at. There are some very good reasons not to overly structure the communication served by social tools. But I suspect that there is still an iceberg’s worth of utility — personal and social — left to produce in real time social media. It will require us to think about organizing time and designing temporality. Neither of these are in the web design vernacular. The navigation of time has been tackled in other practices. Perhaps our time is yet to come.



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