The Now Web: Not Now, Or Not Yet?

guest post by Adrian Chan

I have my Stanford reunion coming up tomorrow. At the risk of dating myself, it’s my twentieth. I wrote my thesis at Stanford on an Apple Macintosh, which required swapping out floppy discs in order to run Microsoft Word (on one) with my ever-expanding tome on the other. Drafts were printed on a dot matrix printer, and in the final weeks of each quarter Meyer Library was overcome with a chattering Morse-like din that I can recall to this day. It was our version of an echo chamber.

For we did not have email. We did not even have modems.

In preparation for the reunion, some of us have encouraged our classmates to join Facebook. Of a class of about 1650 students, around 300 of us are on Facebook, and 80 of those 300 have joined the reunion group page. Only ten of us have listed twitter accounts. Clearly, we belong to a different generation. We stand for the Not Now social media users. Or possibly, the Not Yet social media users.

I don’t know if this speaks to a generation gap or an experience gap. But if I belong to a generation that “doesn’t get” social media, it is not entirely because we’re computer illiterates. Many of my classmates have had rockstar careers in the tech industry. I seem to remember that some 40% of Oracle’s new employees in 1989 were recent Stanford grads. If anything, we are a bridge generation: the first to use desktops, but prior to the domestication of the Internet.

The experience gap is not inexperience with machines, but is inexperience with their unique kind of social presence and interaction. We’re not used to the practice of posting profiles about ourselves (I exclude myself), and of keeping constant contact (in a discontinuous and partial sort of way) with friends and colleagues. We’re phone-based and email-based, and at our stage in life, time simply doesn’t afford us the surplus attention with which to attach ourselves to the social web.

Time would be the reason most of us would cite for our online invisibility. But I think that there’s something more.

For lack of a better phrase, I’ll call it the “alienation” of social media. To integrate social media into your daily life you need to project yourself into it. You need to be able to live in a kind of time that’s very different from the time of the everyday. You need to be able to pay attention without bankrupting your focus and concentration, need to be able to sustain high levels of availability to a world that’s neither “here” nor “there,” again, without dissociating from the here and now.

Computers were, to my generation, a tool, machine, an object: outside of us. We learned to use them as a means of extending our abilities and activities. In McLuhan’s classic use of the phrase, computers were an extension of us. An extension, but nothing more. The machine was an object, and anything we did with it, and it with us, was simply that. The PC was an object, not a world. Turn it off, and nothing.

The social web is more than McLuhan could have seen. The social web is not an “extension of man” but a “network.” By dint of its connectivity, it has communication. By dint of communication, it has relationships. By dint of relationships, it is a world. And as a world, it is in time. Those of us who are frequent users of social media know this time as a sense that there’s ongoing activity “out there” – regardless of whether we’re on or in it at the time. Turn off the machine today, and wait.

To know what a social technology does, turn it off, not on. What it does is what you miss.

Fred Wilson describes the Now Web as the breed of “micro-blogging” applications and services we know from Twitter’s storied success this year. A raft of lifestreaming applications now serve users who, unlike much of my generation, can and do live (at least for a time) in social media. I think the reference to “web” and “blogging” for tools in this space is a misnomer. For they’re not really writing tools, but speaking tools. With a different kind of speaking, and of conversation, of course.

If profile-based social networking sites are page-based, lifestreaming apps are time-based.

The Now Web is engaged in not by writing (blogging), but by being in the flow (or by observing the flow from the river’s edge, if that be your preference). The needs of time-based applications are different from those of the “conventional” web. If web 1.0 is page-based and print-derived, now-web is time-based and radio-derived.

Twitter is the internet generation’s ham radio.

The businesses and applications designed around twitter, its siblings and cousins, will do well to consider the ways we relate to content and communication when it is time-based (further thoughts on designing lifestreaming apps).

  • We are less likely to search, more likely to browse, skim, or check.
  • Content comes in the form of news, announcements, reminders, and greetings – speech-based acts not written reflections, arguments, or opinions.
  • Messages lay a claim to our attention in the present – not later or whenever is good for us.
  • Content is organized around the now, which lacks the structure of taxonomy, genre, or other form.
  • And if written content makes a claim to thinking, lifestreamed content is more likely to make a claim to attention: we engage in social encounters through our mutual acknowledgment and awareness of one another
  • If the claims made in written content are “linguistic” – that is, they are linguistically-mediated expressions – lifestreamed content is more likely to be gestural, suggestive, indicative, relational.
  • If the appeal made in written content is designed through statements, arguments, or narratives, then in the world of lifestreaming, it is more likely to be an appeal to acknowledgment and awareness.

Every medium screens back physical participation in communication and interaction, while also amplifying particular modes of expression and engagement. Lifestreaming applications screen back the sense of being in time, and of being with others in time. But they extend and amplify time by connecting multiple threads of time (each of us having our own).

It’s early days yet for time-based social media and for social interaction design frameworks best suited to them. As we develop designs, interfaces, features, and new ways of engaging with others, with content, and with timelines appropriate to time-based and not page based social media, I suspect that we will be surprised. I believe the word is “serendipity”: the discovery of something surprising that comes at just the right time.

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