The Limits of the Real Time Web

Beth Kantor's nonprofit blog has an good article asking about the possibilities for real-time web interaction and asks whether it's possible for the web to let someone be in two places at the same time:

What interests me is if this is the next evolution of the social web -
what is the culture shift that needs to happen within a nonprofit to
embrace it?  Of course, I want to also know what the value or benefit
is to nonprofits?

For
me, the eye-opening moment of real-time collaboration came last winter when I was planning a conference with two friends. The three of us knew each other pretty well and we had all
met each other one-on-one but we had never been in the same room together (this wouldn't happen until the first evening of the conference we were co-leading!). A month to go we scheduled a conference call to hash out details.

I got on Skype from my New Jersey home and called Robin on her Bay Area landline and Wess on his cellphone in Los Angeles. The mixed telephony was fun enough, but the
amazing part came when we brought our computers into the conversation. Within minutes we had opened up a shared Google Doc file and started
cutting and pasting agenda items. Someone made a
reference to a video, found it on Youtube and sent it to the other two
by Twitter. Wess had a secondary wiki going, we were bookmarking resources on Delicious and sending links by instant messenger.

This is qualitatively different from the two-places-at-once scenario
that Beth Kantor was imagining because we were using real-time web tools to be more present with one
another. Our attention was more focused on the work at hand.

I'm more skeptical about nonprofits engaging in the live tweeting phenomenon--fast-pace, real-time updates on Twitter and other "micro-blogging" services. These tend to be so
much useless noise. How useful can we be if our attention is so divided?

Last week a nonprofit I follow used Twitter to cover a press
conference. I'm sorry to say that the flood of tweets amounted to a lot of useless trivia. So what that the
politician you invited actually showed up in the room? That he actually
walked to the podium? That he actually started talking? That he ticked
through your talking points? These are all things we knew would happen
when the press conference was announced. There was no NEWs in this and no take-away that could get me more involved.

What would have been useful
were links to background issues, a five-things-you-do list, and a five
minute wrap-up video released within an hour of the event's end. They
could have been coordinated in such a way to ramp up the real time buzz: if they had posted an Twitter update every half
hour or so w/one selected highlight and a link to a live Ustream.tv link I
probably would have checked it out. The difference is that I would have
chosen to have my workday interrupted by all of this extra activity. In the online
economy, attention is the currency and any unusual activity is
a kind of mugging.

When I talk to clients, I invariably tell that "social media" is inherently social, which is to say that it's about people communicating. The excitement we bring to our everyday communication and the judgment we show in shaping the message is much more important than the Web 2.0 tool de jour.