Is the real time web just ambient noise or a real force for change? close

Lauren Macnab
Lauren Macnab
In Musings, Online Innovation
17th December 2009

Getting something quickly is not the same as getting something of quality, more often than not the 2 things are directly opposed. Equally true is that unedited or unqualified information has little value in the long term. So why is the real time web getting everyone so excited?

I have always used the internet to research and learn, it is my first port of call when I need information. More often than not I begin my hunt for information on a search engine, hardly revolutionary I know. Being barraged by unedited opinion isn’t high on my list of wants when I’m trying to find information, so I wasn’t thrilled when I heard that Google, Bing and Yahoo were all falling over each other to be the first to provide real time search results. Needless to say, I for one was not immediately convinced by the value or power of the real time web.

It wasn’t until I watched @QueenRania speak about the power and influence of real time web, at the Le Web 09 conference in Paris, that I was forced to re-think. She spoke of how being a queen is ‘clouded in protocol’ that prevents her from being able to talk to people (or rather, people being able to talk to her) on an equal level. She espoused the virtue of the internet for making all equal, it is a forum where titles mean little and content is everything. So why not use this powerful medium to evoke change? It is not radical to suggest that the web can be used to change the world for the better, but can the real time web actually save someone’s life in just a matter of hours, or even minutes? Or can it rally the internet’s vast population of dormant, armchair spectators to turn their "analogue activism" into physical change? Queen Rania thinks so.

She cited the Ketsana typhoon and subsequent floods that struck the Philippines. This was a devastating natural disaster that left many people in life threatening danger. With the help of social networks, quick thinking locals were able to send real time information on the worst affected areas, directing aid to those desperately in need faster than would otherwise have been possible, probably saving numerous lives. What’s more, the sense of urgency borne out of seeing the situation unfurl in real time prompted people to donate money and volunteer their time through the likes of Twitter, Plurk and Facebook. This is without question, an example of the unique benefit of real time information being disseminated to a vast and proactive audience.

Queen Rania also talked about the recent post-election protests in Iran, a subject that was widely reported in traditional media, but only truly tangible when viewed through Tweets and live video footage from the streets of Tehran, seen in real time. The immediacy and importance of the situation was evident to all, and people from all over the world were spectators of live events as they unfolded in a country not commonly associated with media freedom. The real-time audience were able to feel a connection to these events that would not otherwise have been possible.

But people do not have long term memories, especially when it comes to online. And in the same way that real-time can cast a spotlight on a subject, it can take it away equally as quickly. A few weeks after the protests in Iran began, Michael Jackson died. Suddenly the web was awash with information on the King of Pop, Iran was old news.

Never before had a subject changed the digital landscape so quickly, rumour turned into speculation which turned into fact, all within minutes and all played out before our eyes. Proof, if it was needed, that real time information is a powerful force.

We just have to learn to harness this force, according to Queen Rania. She gave a rousing speech which I watched via a live stream. Seeing it live made it all the more impactful. She was there to ask the audience of Le Web to lend their online support to her charity, 1 Goal, which campaigns for the right of every child in the world to have access to an education. After her speech, I went straight to 1Goal and signed up, something I would not have done if I hadn’t felt so part of the moment. Whether I, and the countless others who signed up as a result of Queen Rania’s speech, go on to actively support the charity remains to be seen.

If nothing else, real time web can bring information from anywhere in the world to a diverse and receptive audience. But the information that is out there does not become valuable or important until there are subsequent physical and positive actions. We are privileged to have the world at our fingertips and up to the minute information at our disposal, however, as Queen Rania so eloquently put it "[…] online activism is fleeting when there is no personal effort involved."