As the web has evolved, one thing has remained constant -- a growing need for immediacy and timeliness. It's not enough to receive e-mail or read blogs; I need to be pinged when new messages or posts. When my friends post their status updates, I want to be informed at that moment. Don't post your event recap after the fact -- live-blog it, or live-stream it. I don't just want to know the clicks in the past three days -- tell me who has clicked in the past three minutes. I don't want to read about history after it happens; I want to read about it as it happens.
Since its inception, the internet has been playing catch-up to the speed of life. When people think about the next step in the evolution of the web, one answer is gaining more and more consensus: real time.
'...We'll Cross the Streams'
Forgive the "Ghostbusters" reference, but it is actually appropriate in this context. Allow me to explain. In recent months, the emphasis on real-time has become apparent. Twitter's real-time search results have become increasingly popular, putting pressure on Google. One feature that emerged from the aftermath of the big Facebook redesign several months back was the "live feed" of real-time status updates, and FriendFeed has gained plaudits for similar functionality. Publishing mechanisms have become more instantaneous, more mobile, more nimble.
A recent post on TechCrunch draws the distinction (referencing John Borthwick's thoughts on the matter) between pages, the static way in which we have viewed the web up until now, and streams, which the author argues are the next dynamic wave of content consumption. (Here is a really great overview of the concept of streams, though the concept has been around in one form or another for a while.)
'We're in Now Now.'
(Another 80s movie reference -- this time, "Spaceballs" -- but again, relevant!) The new standard for organizing content, the article contends, is by "nowness." Nowness goes beyond publication; the essence of nowness is conversation (read: social media), both among trusted sources and in the bigger crowd. That's why social search like Twitter's is becoming so big. That's why Twitter and Facebook are increasingly more important as referrers than Google for many blogs and articles. That's why Wikipedia and the concept of crowdsourcing have become new standards of information aggregation.
One consequence of social media and syndication is that content distribution becomes something akin to throwing out a message in a bottle -- a bottle that you've hopefully equipped with a tracking beacon. I can nail a copy of my message to the tree on my island and hope that people swim up to come and take a look, but when I cast it out in the bottle, it's hard to say what will happen. Maybe it will sink to the bottom, or maybe it will wash up on the shores of Slashdot. Maybe someone will find it, make a thousand copies and distribute my message farther than I ever thought it could go. Maybe someone will find it and burn it to a crisp.
I'm About to Lose Control and I Think I Like It
Essentially, the process of content distribution becomes completely decentralized. You have your centralized placement, sure, but the real magic is happening out there in the stream, in the social web. If you have your ear to the ground, you can see what's going on, but if you don't...?
People get very concerned about controlling their content, knowing exactly where it is at all times and who is messing with it, but the age of control is over. Traffic and syndication are no longer linear. It is hard to predict how the stream will behave. And the stream is powerful. It can carry you away if you're not prepared. But it can also bring you great benefits.
So, how will the shift to real-time affect universities? It makes it all the more important for universities to already be present in the stream, watching and participating in conversations, adding to the mix, responding when appropriate. We need to enable our content to be dynamic, to be fed out and enter the social mix. We have adapt to the new metrics -- retweets, favorites, recommendations, diggs, tags, trending topics -- of the social web as a means of tracking our relevance.
Also, there's a lot going on at universities, and we're always looking to stay relevant. Part of embracing the stream is to tie what's going on within our walls to the topics out in the stream. The overlap potential is huge, it's just a matter of capitalizing on it.
It is also important to understand that though the stream can be harsh at times, it can also be self-policing and self-correcting. It may not be possible to put out every fire or address every red flag, but that goes with the territory -- and that's OK. Embracing the stream means letting go a little bit. It may be hard to maintain a balance between presence and restraint, but that's the challenge of the stream -- getting wet without falling in.
Here at Tufts, this is our challenge as we venture farther and farther out into the stream. So, what else should we be doing?