Against Realtime

The future is now, more so than ever. Silicon Valley, filled with worshipers of the new, has embraced "realtime" as the latest trend. If it didn't happen in the last 10 minutes, it doesn't matter.

It's why blogs are supposedly killing sluggish print media. It's why Twitter is thought to threaten Google — and why Facebook has turned itself inside out to copy the message-broadcasting upstart.

Twitter, the message-broadcasting website, is the ultimate realization of this trend, and it's what has venture capitalists buzzing Twitter's value up past $250 million before it's earned any revenues.

The experience of Twitter is a stream of updates from people you follow on the service, most recent first. Headline aggregators like Google News, Techmeme, and Digg works the same way, with algorithms that privilege the latest news — often the publisher who repackaged a story the most cleverly and most recently, rather than the one who broke it.

This relentless neophilia is based on the notion that information only has value if it's fresh. That the only news is breaking news. That the only thing you want to know about your friends is what they're doing right now.

What if it's all wrong?

GigaOm's Om Malik, the blogger turned venture capitalist, wonders just that while writing about Facebook's redesign:

Facebook, by its very nature, is mostly about our past, sometimes about our present, but very rarely about our future. Being symmetric, it's important that we have some sort of a prior relationship with a person in order to friend them on Facebook. Your classmates, neighbors and the folks you met at a party - these are all relationships from your past. Facebook doesn't really allow you to discover new people - and that has been the part of its charm (and utility).

That's why the redesign is so hated: It has grafted the worst parts of Twitter — its noise and its lack of relevancy — over the best part of Facebook, its carefully filtered news feed, which Malik compares to a "constantly updated newspaper about us."

That's the failing of Facebook's redesign: It is constantly updated, but no longer with the best stuff, just the newest. So let's all hope Google doesn't buy Twitter, as the Valley's pundits (and Twitter's investors) seem to be praying it will. That acquisition, done at a high enough price, will spark a boom in realtime investing — an armada of websites all meant to help us find out what's happening right now around the world, with our friends, in our neighborhood.

To the extent that any of them succeed, our lives will be lessened for it. Self-help gurus like to talk about living in the moment. But if we are constantly documenting the moment in which we live, we stop being able to live in it. Sometimes the most important things happened hours ago, years ago, a century ago — but we are just beginning to understand how they mattered. Realtime? So 10 minutes ago.

(Photo of Life clock via Make)