The interesting thing with the realtime web is that it is more and more becoming an integral part of the web. People are taking for granted that it is there, without thinking about it. While the term “realtime web” always has been used mainly by web enthusiasts and geeks, the idea of user generated content published in (near) realtime through platforms like Twitter, Facebook or others that allow for instant status updates and search, has spilled over into the Internet mainstream. Considering that Facebook is close to reach 500 million active users and having in mind that the social network encourages people to publish content to the public, it’s very likely that the publicly accessible realtime web is now being populated by hundreds of millions of people.
The contribution of web users all over the world to the continuous stream of information has become an important part of many people’s web usage. And search engines and services like Twitter Search, Snap Bird, OneRiot, Tweetmeme, Openbook or even Google and Bing enable anyone to tap into this realtime stream, to see what people are talking right now, which links they are sharing – yes, in fact even to get an overview about the mood of people, right now and by looking back and aggregating status updates.
While most people are aware of the new possibilities and usage patterns triggered by social networks, blogging and microblogging, I’m not sure if everyone has thought about the consequences all this could have on societies and economies.
It’s worth to take a minute and to think about the way the realtime web is changing the world. That sounds like big words, but it might not be exaggerated. The realtime web makes it possible for people to organize without formal leader. We have seen in a few non-democratic countries how Twitter was used as a tool to avoid censorship, to spread news and to inform about upcoming demonstrations and protests. With the realtime web, people can organize faster. Really fast – and as some unofficial street parties in France show, in a way that the authorities have problems to adjust. Imagine what this could mean on a bigger scale. If suddenly and without any previous planning a million people would gather on a city’s main square, after reading about it on Twitter 30 minutes before. A really big flash mob. That’s a power of the people even western societies are not used to.
I don’t want to claim that the realtime web already has made the world more democratic, but it at least has the chance to do so. And it definitely creates transparency. In any second, you can use a variety of technologies to receive people’s honest realtime feedback on products, services and events. Last time everyone could witness this was on Saturday’s final of the Eurovision Song Contest. Following the #esc hashtag on Twitter was almost more fun than watching the show.
Even if you cannot be sure that everything you read is true, the social connections between people and the way they earn trust over time by being a reliable and authentic source of information and opinion acts as a filter, ensuring that not every stupid rumour is going viral.
On the other hand, that’s not always enough. There have been so many occasions when people falsely were said to have died. Those kind of stories do not always come from Twitter or other realtime services, but rather from mainstream media and gossip sites. Still, with the realtime web, they are spreading much faster and reaching people who otherwise never would read celebrity sites or questionable tabloids.
I think it is necessary to highlight that there is a risk involved in the realtime web. A risk that the combination of global connections and weak filters can lead to misinformation’s on a large scale, which could spark unrest or even panic. Especially in a situation where a really bad news is hitting the web, not all people necessarily think about fact-checking or going to another, renowned newspaper site to get a confirmation before sharing the news. So I don’t think it is too far fetch to expect some major case of global misinformation caused by the realtime web. But that’s maybe what needs to happen to make people realize what power the realtime web gave them as a crowd. And fortunately and despite the uncertainty regarding the future of journalism, there will always be professional journalists who can correct false reports or complete incomplete information spreading on the realtime web. That’s one of the main tasks future journalists will have to work with.
Even though there are some question marks about if the realtime web in fact could cause trouble to people, in my eyes the advantages and opportunities are prevailing. More democracy and more transparency could at least in theory lead to a better and more honest world. It’s up to us to make it become real in practice, too.