Home Where Does Real-Time Matter? In Viewing the Stream or Searching It? (Facebook Bets on the Latter)

Where Does Real-Time Matter? In Viewing the Stream or Searching It? (Facebook Bets on the Latter)

“Real-time” – as in the “real-time web” – has certainly become the buzzword du jour. It’s even possible that the move of web services to support a real-time, immediate flow of information is what will ultimately define the next version of the web…if you’re someone who likes to attach version numbers to something that’s in as much constant change as today’s Internet, that is. Still, it’s easy to see the benefits of real-time in action, especially when it comes to disseminating news…as was apparent when the immediacy of Twitter trumped CNN’s coverage of the Iranian elections and subsequent riots.

Yet exactly how a company should integrate “real-time” into their service is something that’s not always easy to grasp. It’s clear that Facebook, for one, is still trying to figure it out.

Facebook Tests Real-Time Search

In a Facebook blog post, the company announced that a limited, private beta of a new search interface is being rolling out to a small group of folks on the social network. The new interface will allow those fortunate enough to have access to it the ability to search for content from people, organizations, and other public figures as soon as they share it on Facebook. They’ll also be able to search through their News Feed for status updates, photos, links, videos, and notes for items being shared by friends, by pages of which they’re a fan, or by those who have chosen to leave their profile open. Again, this is described as “up-to-the-minute” search results. In other words, Facebook is testing a real-time search engine.

Ironically, Facebook’s other attempt at real-time didn’t go quite as well. After March’s site redesign which was responsible for the real-time stream of updates on users’ homepages, Facebook faced protests by hundreds of thousands of users within days of the revamp. Apparently, those complaints didn’t fall on deaf ears. According to a recent article on VentureBeat, Facebook is moving away from that real-time homepage stream, but towards what isn’t exactly clear. All we know is that Facebook did acknowledge that their users “missed the News Feed in its former structure.”

Real-Time: Good for Search, Not for Streams?

That just goes to show that real-time doesn’t always make sense everywhere, in every service. Unlike FriendFeed, who boldly bet on real-time and made it the new default for their stream, mimicking that same feature over on Facebook was a recipe for disaster. (It could be argued that real-time updates don’t work on FriendFeed either, but that may be just a personal opinion).

Even in Twitter, where information flows in immediately to the service, the Twitter.com homepage doesn’t constantly auto-refresh for you, forcing you to see the updates as they happen. And Twitter desktop clients tend to poll for updates on a scheduled basis…so, not quite real-time there either.

Where real-time does work is search, something we’ve learned not only from using search.twitter.com but also from using some handy Twitter greasemonkey scripts that add Twitter results to a traditional search. (Here’s one for Google and one for Bing).

It’s also being rumored that Google may be working on a real-time search engine that would pull in results from Twitter and other microblogging sites. Perhaps “real-time” works in search because the stream is focused on one subject, not a chaotic mass of disjointed thoughts and links. Or then again, maybe it works because even though they’re real-time, search results don’t move across the screen in a constant flow – you have to refresh the page to see the new ones.

Questions about Real-Time

So does this mean that real-time doesn’t work in streams but only in search? Can we just not process a rapidly updated flow quickly enough for it to make any sense? Or does it all come down to some magic number of people we follow that determines how much new input we can stand to see streaming by in real-time? Or maybe the problem is that real-time is simply too raw, without filters we miss seeing the updates that matter the most.

Do you agree? Or do you feel that real-time streams are indeed the future, but unfortunately the masses (as in the majority of Facebook users) just haven’t gotten the hang of it yet. Or that real-time is just so new that no one has mastered the ideal UI for following a real-time flow?

It seems like we don’t really have all the answers just yet, the only thing to do is experiment and see what works. Just like Facebook is doing now.

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