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Real-time Web keeps social networkers connected

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SAN FRANCISCO — Jessica Stryczek reaches for her iPhone every morning, even before she gets out of bed. It is her lifeline to the world
— an uber alarm clock/CD player/e-mail device/game player/newspaper/shopping guide/banking assistant/conduit to Facebook and Twitter.

"Without it, I wouldn't survive," says Stryczek, a 26-year-old teacher in Fremont, Calif.

The same goes for Sara Wilson, who starts and ends each day on her iPhones. Yes, she has two: one as an alarm clock, the other for "everything else" — e-mail, texts, Facebook updates, Twitter "tweets," checking her bank balance.

"It's always on, and glued to my body," says Wilson, a 26-year-old media buyer in San Francisco who has not had a land line since college.

"It's like a security blanket."

Such is life in the post-Web 2.0 world. The latest iteration of the Internet — deemed the "real-time Web" by some analysts, is exemplified by the obsessive use of PCs or cellphones for quick interactions and dips into the online information stream. This hyper-connectedness is fueled by the rise in social media and distinguished by quick, short communication and, increasingly, an absence of privacy.

More than four in five U.S. adults online use social media at least once a month, according to a new Forrester Research report. While young people march toward almost universal adoption, the most rapid growth has occurred among consumers 35 and older. Now, established companies and start-ups are scrambling to develop real-time Web applications for gaming, intuitive online searches, location services and customer support. The market potential is huge, tech analysts and others say.

Everything from cellphones to common digital cameras is "being turned into eyes and ears for applications," says Tim O'Reilly, the founder of O'Reilly Media who is credited with inventing the term Web 2.0. "Data is being collected, presented and acted upon in real time. It's all about immediacy and instantaneous data."

The need for speed

The need for data speed has inspired O'Reilly to come up with a new phrase, "Web squared," to describe the evolution of the Web as we know and use it. O'Reilly and John Battelle, founder of Federated Media Publishing, coined it in a white paper preceding their Web 2.0 Summit conference in San Francisco next month.

They consider Wal-Mart, for instance, a Web-squared company because its operations are infused with the latest technology and driven by data from customers. One of the great Web-squared opportunities, they say, is providing that kind of real-time intelligence to smaller retailers without monolithic supply chains.

Wal-Mart's philosophy is shared by hundreds of other marketers, who have not just embraced, but bear-hugged, the idea of cashing in on the real-time Web. Ford Motor, Starbucks and Chevron are among major businesses using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to sell products, service customers and communicate to the masses.

According to Forrester Research, 95% of 1,217 business decision makers surveyed late last year said they plan to use social networks. What is more, 53% of more than 300 marketers planned to increase social-media marketing spending this year, according to another Forrester presentation, in April.

The influence of our hyper-connected state extends beyond marketing. Gaming is the most popular application category on Facebook, which has more than 350,000 apps. Eight of the games on Facebook have at least 12 million monthly active players. In all, gaming companies expect to collect $600 million in revenue this year via social networks, compared with $150 million in 2008.

"The (140-character limit to post a comment on Twitter) is symbolic of people's short attention span" on social-networking services, says Mark Pincus, CEO of Zynga, maker of the two most popular games on Facebook —FarmVille, with about 47 million monthly active users, and Mafia Wars, with more than 24 million. Zynga has 15 million monthly active users on MySpace.

"Social gaming is being built to be consumed in that same way," he says. "A game session is a couple of clicks, or minutes, by design. With FarmVille and Mafia Wars, you almost can't play long."

Consider, too, online searches. In the helter-skelter world of real-time Web, it's common for individuals to search the same topic multiple times a day because the flow of information is so great and ever-changing. Breaking news, like Michael Jackson's death, is a classic example.

"The constant stream of content from Twitter, Facebook, Digg and MySpace can be overwhelming," says Tobias Peggs, general manager of OneRiot, a search engine that helps consumers sift through all the chat and buzz on the Internet.

"We do for real-time Web users what Google does for the static Web," Peggs says. "We organize this fire hose of information, this noise."

Modern search engines use complex algorithms and hundreds of different ranking criteria to produce results. If most users click on the third item of a particular search-results page more often than the first, Google's algorithms recognize the third result may be better than the first, and adjusts those search results accordingly.

The Google Mobile Application for iPhone employs GPS or cell-tower triangulation to detect the user's location. A search for "Chinese food" returns results for the name, location and contact info for the three nearest Chinese restaurants.

Even land lines are being touched by the real-time Web. Mobile phones, a favorite vehicle for social-networking use, are displacing decades-old land lines. By late 2008, 20% of U.S. households were mobile-only, compared with 7% in the first half of 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which collects such data because it uses land lines for health surveys. If the decline continues at its current rate, the last cord will be cut sometime in 2025.

An overwhelmed generation?

The impact of this latest evolution of the Web — good and bad — can be measured in everyday life. People are more likely to attend high school and college reunions because of shared interests with friends, thanks to social-networking services such as Ning and Facebook, according to both companies. Automated stock trades have replaced human-generated ones, O'Reilly points out.

But privacy and simple communication are often sacrificed in the process, say privacy advocates and academics.

The changes can be vexing, but there is precedent. The arrival of new and improved media almost always foments behavioral changes. The TV generation ushered in the TV dinner. Radio brought families together in front of a box. The big difference is that the real-time Web is always on, connecting millions of Americans to one another at all hours.

"Three or four years ago, we spoke of the Web as disenfranchising people in front of their computers, alone," says Trevor Traina, who has co-founded, and sold, two Internet start-ups. "But it has come full circle. Now, the PC can often be a hive of communications. You can't go to the grocery store now without telling your friends."

Those born in 1978 through 1997 — the so-called Net Generation— are the largest generation in size (78.5 million people in the U.S.).

They were weaned on technology and, based on demographic muscle alone, will dominate the 21st century, says Don Tapscott, author of Grown Up Digital.

For all of the benefits of real-time connectivity, many folks acknowledge a litany of annoyances that come with being connected up to 20 hours a day.

The No. 1 headache is often just signing off.

"Unplugging is virtually, no pun intended, impossible," says Dave Wendland, 25, a heavy-duty real-time Web user in Chicago. "People tend to go through withdrawal, and I can attest to that. The problem of disconnecting is that you feel disconnected. Go figure."

The drawbacks don't end there. Consumers have been burned by a lack of privacy; sometimes, their overuse of social media manifests itself in unintentionally anti-social behavior; they can be misled by bum information and spread false rumors; and they often admit to being overwhelmed by a bombardment of information.

Sometimes, the relentless flow of invitations to join in games, groups or befriend near strangers can feel like spam.

"It all can be distracting at times," says Kevin Weatherman, 27, who is in business development for an Internet advertising start-up in Palo Alto, Calif. He uses at least six instant-messaging services — often at once.

Then again, it's hard to break personal addictions.

"The truth is I would sooner leave my wallet at home than go offline," says Bill Hankes, 45, a spokesman for RealNetworks, a digital-entertainment services company in Seattle.




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