The future is not quite real-time

In a discussion with Lawrie Phipps (@Lawrie) I was reminded of something I was thinking about last year around the advantages of not quite real-time (NQRT). It’s one of the few genuinely unique affordances of the web. Asynchronous communication has been with us since cave painting and synchronous since two people first clapped eyes on each other. What is relatively new is the cultural acceptability of having anywhere between 10 seconds and 10 hours between contributions to a discussion or conversation (although between 10 seconds and around 5 minutes is the more interesting time-frame).

Egg Timer
Photo by Ian Barbour:

I’m thinking here about ‘Instant’ messaging, a Twitter stream, a Facebook wall and even ‘rapid’ emailing or forum posting. For example, I can receive a text message in Skype, check the web for information or speak to a colleague in the room and then respond. It’s powerful because it doesn’t demand the immediate attention of a f2f encounter or a ringing phone and it also gives me time to gather my thoughts/cross check information.

Not quite real-time is the main reason why most people are wittier, cleverer and all together more attractive online than they are f2f (note, I say ‘are’ not ‘appear to be’ – the web is real and so are the things that happen there…). It’s also a key reason why more people are comfortable to be perfomative on Facebook walls and in Twitter streams i.e. visible social interaction. This is a communication mode in which we feel a sense of interpersonal connection but also have some level of control over pace/timing. It’s a powerful because it’s social but doesn’t aggressively demand attention. This is why text will always be the dominant visible form of communication online and why many of us chose to not put our cameras on when Skyping.

The downside of NQRT is when it’s used as part of a focused event or discussion with more than two participants. In these cases the pace tends to increase rapidly until NQRT becomes achingly close to f2f speeds (4 seconds is about the maximum time between responses in a f2f conversion ) and the thinking-time gaps are crushed. When this happens the quickest thinkers and fastest typists win-out (or those who have pre-prepared text which they paste in…). This is why text-chats are often feel so exclusive, especially in an educational context – the usual suspects take the floor. It could be one of the many modes of engagement which erode when shifted from a personal to an institutional context?

It would be fascinating to study the nature of NQRT communications because it appears to be unique to the web and a relatively new cultural phenomenon. What is effect of NQRT on maintaining relationships and/or supporting communities? Is it a more inclusive form because it levels out the playing field and those who like to muse before expressing themselves can be part of the flow or is it fated to always speed-up and lose its advantages as soon as a discussion becomes interesting? It’s certainly something that warrants research, assuming a practical methodology could be developed…

2 thoughts on “The future is not quite real-time

  1. dkernohan Reply

    Good post, Dave, but no (I think).

    What online fora do is cut down the transmission time between each written communication. I guess 30 years ago I’d send you a letter or memo to your office in Oxford – you’d probably answer the question in seconds (“Yes! I’d love to speak at your event, I’d like to explore my concept of postal visitors and residents further via the aid of some excellent transparencies”) but all the fiddling about taking actual physical objects between us would add a significant delay.

    The internet cuts out all of this delay – my 10 seconds of thought – your 10 seconds of thought – nothing in between them. It gets you to work in a different way (if I’ve @ messaged you or skyped you I suspect you’d not be keen to think “ah, I’ll get back to him after the polo game”), but given that all you are doing is weighing up options and checking an easy-to-find reference I’d expect a response in a few minutes in the same way as I might expect a letter by return of post.

    There are also (I think) parallels in real-time interaction – if I asked you in the bar if you were free for a beer next week, I’d hardly be nonplussed if you checked your calendar or even called your wife. Or if I asked you some kind of crazy academic question and you weren’t sure of something you were referring to, it would be understood for you to say “can’t remember her name – I’ll look it up and send it to you”.

    So I think you’re drawing a third discrete category of interpersonal interaction where you need to be seeing the boundaries of the other two as very fuzzy and indistinct. But that latter idea isn’t going to get anyone keynote gigs or radio 4 interviews… 🙂

  2. David White (@daveowhite) Reply

    @dkernohan I take your point. I’d argue though that reduced transmission time makes the communication more social and less of a ‘correspondence’ (to use letter writing lingo). There is also the performance aspect and the notion of a social audience. I doubt many would be comfortable having a real-time conversation ‘in-front’ of a few hundred people à la Twitter and Facebook.

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