Paper: The Politics of Real-time: A Device Perspective on Social Media Platforms and Search Engines

My co-authored article, with colleagues Esther Weltevrede and Carolin Gerlitz, has been published in Theory, Culture & Society


This paper inquires in the politics of real-time in online media. It suggests that real-time cannot be accounted for as a universal temporal frame in which events happen, but explores the making of real-time from a device perspective focusing on the temporalities of platforms. Based on an empirical study exploring the pace at which various online media produce new content, we trace the different rhythms, patterns or tempos created by the interplay of devices, users’ web activities and issues. What emerges are distinct forms of ‘realtimeness’ which are not external from but specific to devices organized through socio-technical arrangements and practices of use. Realtimeness thus unflattens more general accounts of the real-time web and research, and draws attention to the agencies built into specific platform temporalities and the political economies of making real-time.

The full article is available online at Theory, Culture & Society and available for download as pdf.


figure 3

The ephemerality of content hosting sites

Broken images on FOK forum

This is a snapshot from a thread about “Child Stars: Then and Now” on the FOK forum, one of the biggest fora in the Netherlands. It is exemplary of fora whose community members rely on image content hosting sites to submit their content to a thread. Ephemerality has a connection to the real-time stream1 where data ‘flows by’ and Twitter limits access to ‘old’ content by only providing updates from the past two weeks. The FOK forum does archive itself but since its members rely on third-party content hosting sites old threads become unreadable. Imagine what 4chan will look like in 5 years?

The popular discussion board 4chan takes a different approach to ‘archiving’ its forum which is closer to the idea of the ephemerality of streams within social media platforms. As described in “4chan and/B: an Analysis of Anonymity and Ephemerality in a Large Online Community” 4chan is rendered ephemeral through specific design choices:

Content ephemerality on 4chan is enforced by thread expiration and a large volume of incoming content. Threads begin on page one and are pushed down as new threads are added. If a user replies to a thread, it is bumped back to the top of the first page. If the thread reaches the bottom of the fifteenth page, the thread is removed permanently and its URL returns a ‘Page Not Found’ error. This entire process can take place over a matter of minutes, as Study 1 will demonstrate.2

Because 4chan by design deletes its threads when they become relatively inactive chances are very slim that it will have to deal with ephemeral third-party content hosting sites on which it heavily relies. With its focus on fresh and popular content, where the median life of a thread is 3,9 minutes (Bernstein et al 2011: p. 4), it is not designed as a permanent record of a specific type of internet culture. 4chan’s robots.txt excludes it from being crawled by the Internet Archive but the 4chanarchive – now being rebranded to chanarchive – keeps a selection of 4chan threads online. Nominated popular threads are archived by chanarchive, including the images from content hosting sites which allows you to revisit a thread with all images intact.

4chan robots.txt excludes it from being crawled by the Internet Archive

  1. see also: M Berry, David. Chapter 6: Real-Time Streams, in: “The Philosophy of Software: Code and Mediation in the Digital Age‎.” (2011): 200. Print.[]
  2. Bernstein, M et al. “4chan and/B: an Analysis of Anonymity and Ephemerality in a Large Online Community.” Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (2011): n. pag. Print.[]

The Next Web: Joe Stump on “Combining Location and real time, that’s hot!”

Joe Stump is the CTO of SimpleGeo, a company that could be described as a S3 for location services.

The Next Web 2010

A few stats: Lat-long timestamp per user id: every 30 seconds users update their location which amounts to 1,6 petabytes per year. Location-based services amount to about 128.000 dollar a month in S3 costs: No wonder Twitter has problems scaling! 500m Facebook users produce about 37,2GB per minute.

As the production of data increases, its inherent value decreases. Content is no longer king, context is king.

Apple has sold 50m iPhones and each iPhone 3GS has 6 sensors. If we tie those sensors to location, what interesting things can we do with these sensors? What other types of sensors would be interesting? For example a thermometer, to measure the weather. Now, for the first time we have a realtime-based population density that can be a powerful dataset.

The Next Web 2010

The guy who caught the MIT Blackjack Team (casino scammers) has 20 years of experience in studying how to merge multiple identities. His main strategy is cross-referencing enormous databases. He found that the two most important pieces of information to give away an identity are time and location. People cannot be in two places at a given time.

How do we make money from location? It is not a war (Foursquare versus Gowalla) but it is a goldrush. You know it is “the next big thing” when an old company applies the following: old company + x (where x is social/location).

There is money in managing contacts but also in tagging things. We can tag things that are not in the physical world with a physical location (lat-long). This is what Gowalla is doing with its items.

A comparison between FourSquare and MyTown:
Foursquare signs up 100.000 users per 10 days and has accumulated 22m check-ins per inception. MyTown signs up 100.000 users per day, does 25m check-ins a day, and averages 64 minutes per day of engagement. MyTown has more engagement, because virtual experience is following users where they go and there is interaction with other players.

It shows that we need to move beyond the check-in which is just a broadcast of presence. We need to start building on a cohesive experience on top of that.

Article Series - The Next Web 2010

  1. The Next Web: Joe Stump on “Combining Location and real time, that’s hot!”

Google officially welcomes the updatesphere

Last month Google announced the launch of their Real Time Search engine. By including real time search results Google has now officially embraced the updatesphere as a subsphere of “The Web,” as may be seen in the following figures.

Google statussphere

Fig. 1: Part of the main index

Google statussphere

Fig. 2: Updates as a subcategory of index results

Google statussphere

Fig. 3: The updatesphere

In my real time web results Google is indexing updates performed within the three popular micro-blogging platforms: Twitter, FriendFeed and Notably absent are the status updates from the social networking site Facebook because of its partial walled garden structure. However, it may not be long before these updates will be included as well because Google recently made a deal with Facebook1. However, it is interesting to note that Google will only receive Facebook updates from public updates on pages (such as fan pages) while competing search engine Bing will receive updates from public profile pages (personal profiles) that are marked as visible for everyone.

Already in 2008 Google started expanding its indexing focus to actions within social networks but the indexed actions were quite messy, for example:

  • silvertje has started 0 topics. silvertje has made 1 reply. … silvertje replied on May 13, 2009 06:25 to the question “We want all …”
  • Anteek added a contact: Anne Helmond. MyBlogLog Action submitted by Anteek –
  • Uploads from Anne Helmond, tagged… –
  • Qik | Anne Helmond | Untitled. Streamed by Anne Helmond. More at

These actions performed on social objects2 such as Flickr photos, blog posts and videos, seemed to be Google’s first steps into real-time search. By partnering up with Facebook, MySpace, FriendFeed, Jaiku, and Twitter, Google has now officially welcomed the updatesphere.

Twitters’ status updates have been included in Google’s index for a while but they are now actively promoted on the main site:

Google Social Search and the statussphere

Please note that this screenshot shows the Social Search experiment, part of Google Labs > Experimental Search. It seems that -while writing- Google removed the real-time social results from the main site and moved it to its Labs.

Status updates are moving from the Web sphere to its own distinct sphere: the updatesphere. Google is acting as a demarcating engine in the construction of the updatesphere.3

  1. Google its official partners are: “Facebook, MySpace, FriendFeed, Jaiku and — along with Twitter, which we announced a few weeks ago.” Google, Relevance meets the real-time web[]
  2. social because they the objects are part of social web services that allow other people to participate in the objects by tagging, rating, leaving a comment, embedding or favoring for example[]
  3. For more on web spheres: R. Rogers, The End of the Virtual: Digital Methods, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009. (38p) [pre-print pdf][]