Mark Trapp

Real-time killed the web 2.0 star

Today, FriendFeed unveiled a redesign of its product, focusing on real-time communication as a principle design goal. Expectedly, there are more than a few detractors of the decision to place real-time at the forefront (see Steven Hodson’s post on Inquisitr, Michael Arrington’s post on TechCrunch, or do a search on FriendFeed). I think they’re stuck in a paradigm that’s lasted for years that real-time has now rendered obsolete: the “follow.”

Dunbar Was Right, Scoble Was Wrong

One staple of social psychology is the concept of Dunbar’s Number: that there’s a cognitive limit to the amount of people with which we can hold stable social relationships. The upper bound for this is thought to be somewhere around 150, but it’s not hard to find thousands, if not millions, of people in social networks and services following or friending well beyond that limit.

A few weeks ago, Hutch Carpenter wrote a great article on how social relationships may be changing to incorporate far more people than Dunbar’s number: that we use the follow relationship as a means to discover new content and track interests rather than as a means to follow people in the normal sense of the word. Instead of Dunbar’s number, we should be focusing on Scoble’s Number: the number of people you can follow that captures what you’re interested in. This is a great hypothesis, and has great explanatory power in the normal web 2.0 world. Robert Scoble has talked about how he uses his “friends” to keep track on trends and find new stuff.

The problem is that this breaks down in the real-time world: content comes in too quickly, and it is very difficult to find anything that’s of any use. Following hundreds or thousands of people in real-time prevents the cognitive absorption of information. Instead of finding the diamonds in the rough that you’d normally miss if you didn’t follow lots of people, you instead can’t find anything. Utilizing a network of hundreds of people to filter the good stuff just compounds the problem.

It’s a Follow Problem, Not a Filter Problem

This is where filters come in: real-time filtering solves the information discovery problem far better than the kludge of following people with diverse interests. I don’t need to follow a person to find out about the interesting bits they’re sharing: I can monitor, in real time, based on semantic data. FriendFeed, in its new version, provides this, and it’s merely the beginning. Filters will become far more powerful and provide far more targetted information that a social graph could ever produce.

Real-time Mimics Real-World

So where does this leave the social graph? I mentioned it on FriendFeed, but I think we’re now much closer to how the real world works than anything else, and it’s a sign of things to come. In real life, we don’t go around making friends with everyone in hopes of getting some sort of information: we have close networks based on shared life experiences, and we use those close networks to experience a lot of stuff outside of our own worldview. A friend may invite you to a party, or tell you about their life, or catch up with you about things you’ve neglected that are personal to you. We use filters, in various forms, to get information about the rest: newspaper sections, TV channels, college courses, and so on.

Wrapping Up

FriendFeed, in its new form, is not perfect, but it’s closer to capturing our natural methods of acquiring information than anything else out there. It’s a sign of things to come: if you’re a person like Robert Scoble, you’re going to have to forget about following a thousand, 10,000, or 50,000 people; instead, start thinking about how to filter the infinite amount of information out there to things that interest you. Set up your information and entertainment channels and stop using people as if they were news feeds.

MG Siegler on VentureBeat had a great article today about this change, quoting Top Gun:

Instead, I’ll just quote a line from Top Gun that speaks to why I love the new FriendFeed: I feel the need — the need for speed.

Look, information happens in real time. One of the reasons the web has exploded in popularity is because it gives you access to more information, faster than ever before. This new version of FriendFeed does the exact same thing, to the extreme — it’s wonderful. Are people really complaining that we should slow the information down? It may be a bit extreme to say, but that really is a form of censorship. Don’t slow the information down, tweak the way you consume it.

In keeping with the go-go 80s metaphors, it’s a real-time world, and I’m just a real-time girl.

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