Preparing for the realtime web

How the shift to realtime will affect the web (and why info overload is overblown).

The dominance of static web pages — and their accompanying user expectations and analytics — is drawing to a close. Taking over: the links, notes, and updates that make up the realtime web. Ted Roden, author of O’Reilly’s upcoming “Building the Realtime User Experience” and a creative technologist at the New York Times, discusses the realtime web’s impact in the following Q&A.

Web 2.0 Expo San FranciscoMac Slocum: Have we shifted from a website-centric model to a user-centric model?

Ted Roden: It used to be that a user sat down at a computer and checked Yahoo and and whatever else. Now, users get their Yahoo updates via Twitter and pushed into Facebook, wherever they are. So rather than a user going to to a specific website, websites are coming to where the users already are.

MS: Has push technology finally found its footing with realtime applications?

TR: I think so. It’s not that push technology was a solution looking for a problem, it was only a partial solution. But now broadband has a wide penetration, browsers are much more stable and resource friendly, servers are cheap or free, and the development of realtime applications has gotten drastically easier. Using push technology without all of those other bits in place was a lot more painful for everybody involved and as a result, designers and programmers stuck with standard web apps. Now we can take a lot of that for granted and think like desktop application designers.

MS: What skill sets do developers need to take advantage of the realtime web?

TR: Python and Java are certainly strong contenders at this point. Tornado is really exciting to me. But one thing is totally clear: the world of a dominant HTTP server is gone. Developers need to get comfortable with the fact that there’s going to be a huge shakeup in the server world. Instead of big fat Apache servers, we’ll see a lot more apps running with built-in HTTP servers that are specific to the application, or at least the type of application.

MS: How about publishers: what do they need to consider as they’re working with realtime apps?

TR: There is a lot to do on the content side. Creators will have to figure out if pushing each new message is important and which messages are important. They’ll also need to know if content has to change as it’s distributed in different formats. Big publishers like the New York Times have long understood that a headline that works in print doesn’t work on the web. And they’ve also figured out that regular web headlines don’t work on the mobile web. At the Times, we’ve recently started retooling the headlines as they get pushed out to Twitter and Facebook because the content needs to fit those platforms specifically.

MS: How can users organize all this incoming information?

TR: I think a lot of users will start relying on things like the “hide” button and “unfollow.” I think more and more apps are going to ship with a “mute for a bit” button, too. So manual filtering will be a big part of this. Apps and websites will start to get smarter about what they show you as well. Facebook already tries to do this with varying degrees of success.

I tend to think information overload is a lot less of a problem than most people do. Essentially, since not long after the printing press was invented, there has been more information being created than we could consume. But we’ve never really had a problem with it. When people go into a library, they don’t have panic attacks because of all the information. They know they can see it all, but it’s not all for them. I look at my Twitter stream the same way.

MS: Are we at a point yet where realtime analytics are in place?

TR: We’re a long way from having these analytics in place. There are some great services, like Chartbeat, that are getting us there. But we have work to do.

It isn’t completely clear what’s important in realtime analytics. For starters, we need to know a) an article is blowing up and b) why? That is absolutely crucial information to have. But we’re going to have to start mixing realtime analytics with A/B testing and all kinds of other things to really understand.

It isn’t a problem limited to realtime analytics, either. If you want to track when a user comes from a certain URL and ends up checking out with his shopping cart, we can do that easily. But we have a tough time figuring out who that person is. Beyond that, we’re going to have to start tracking the amount of influence the users have. We’ll also need to continue tracking the conversation about a piece of content even if the conversation happens in far off corners of the web, far from our websites and Facebook pages.

Note: This interview was condensed and edited.

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