In the previous two weeks I’ve been reading multiple posts and tweets that show the vague contours of a trend towards a new kind of web, the web of (real-time) activity streams. This new web will effectively implement the synaptic web paradigm. In this post I give a rough overview of some of my current thoughts about this; if you really want a quick summary you can skip to the conclusions at the end. I hope to write more about this in the near future with more structure, deliberation and further elaboration on its potential impact. For now, please bear with me!
The rise of public activity streams
More and more social media services will (have to) open up, providing their real-time user activity streams (containing users’ status updates, comments, likes, reactions, etc..) through public APIs. A recent good example is MySpace, providing a real-time activity stream API, opening up a rich activity stream of the MySpace users. [If you have examples of social media services opening up their stream of user activities yourself, I’m very interested to know about them. Please add them to the comments.]
Public activity streams allow users to more easily engage in the social media services that provide them. For instance, other services or (mobile) web applications (clients) that tap into an activity stream of a certain service could make the use of this service much more easy or they could somehow provide an innovative application based on it. Subsequently, more engagement make these social media services more deeply hooked in the fabric of the web and in the daily live of users, which is quite handy if you want to survive as a business on the web.
Creating a web of activity streams using the Twitter API functions as an initial protocol
Wordpress and subsequently Tumblr did something smart. Probably even something pivotal to launch a next generation web. They created APIs that were compatible with the Twitter API, enabling services and (mobile) web applications, made to work with Twitter, to hook into the activity streams of Wordpress and Tumblr respectively. Just like they would with Twitter. See this post by @fredwilson, the post by @davewiner he refers to, and the related Wordpress post and Tumblr post.
To give you a little bit more understanding at this point, without having to read all the posts I reference to, @davidkarp of Tumblr summed up nicely what this actually means in the context of Tumblr:
The really cool thing – because our following models follow a lot of the same principles, we’ve been able to take advantage of a ton of native features:
• Retweeting = Reblogging
• Replying = Reblogging w/ commentary
• Favoriting = Liking
• “@david” = ”http://david.tumblr.com/”
• Conversations = Reblogs
Oke, so now the real fun starts. Imagine that, in the near future, in your favorite client (e.g. (mobile) web application) you use your Twitter, Wordpress and Tumblr accounts to do the things indicated above. But, this (future) client will allow you to do something you can’t do in your current client yet: it enables you to actually choose to which of three services you would like to retweet or reply towards. In other words, it will enable you to communicate from one service to the other and thus from one activity stream to another. Effectively, this implies that these clients, their users and the connections between them, create a new kind of web on the Internet, a web of activity streams between users on different social media platforms.
You might ask yourself, why would I want to retweet, reply and converse from one social media platform to the other? Well, for one, you would like to retweet/forward content items you found in the activity stream of one platform to the users of another platform because these users might use the second platform and not the first, or this specific content item really fits the topics conversed about on the second platform (interesting for specialized social networks such as on Ning).
Another important reason could be that you would like to augment content in a way that is possible on one platform but not on the other. An example could be replying as in reblogging. In Twitter you can reply only in 140 characters, which is sometimes cumbersome. It could very well be you want to reply to a tweet in the form of a blog giving you more space to elaborate. So, in this case, you might reblog the tweet to Tumblr adding your response in blog form.
As a side note, in a rudimentary way, I actually already do something like that with my 3 Tweet blog experiment on Posterous. Whenever I would like to respond shortly on a tweet, but my response doesn’t fit in one tweet, I create a post on this blog, referencing the Tweet and adding my response. Only the title of my response, with relevant hashtags, gets retweeted on Twitter, but my response is actually ‘reblogged’ on Posterous.
To conclude, when the Twitter API is applied as an open standard protocol it will most likely lead to a web of activity streams; it makes it easy for users to communicate between different social media platforms and existing activity stream clients (e.g. existing Twitter clients) could be easily enhanced to enable it. In my opinion, this API is actually the beginning of an open standard protocol for this new activity stream web. Over time, we will invent what wonderful things you can actually do in such a web and what users like and need to make the most use of it. This will lead to extensions of this standard and possibly also to a standardized syntax in content to identify, for instance, users globally in this new web: e.g. how would you identify the @user mentions in this post if he/she could be a user of any of the connected social media platforms on the activity stream web? In relation to this, see this post by @stoweboyd and the response by @bpedro about microformats.
This web of activity streams realizes the Synaptic Web paradigm
Oke, lets try to go one step deeper into the workings of this web of activity streams
To (try to :) keep it short, the synaptic web paradigm revolves around the idea that the structure of, and mechanisms on, the web increasingly resembles that of the neural networks in our brain, see an overview of references I gathered in the past here. This will have, for instance, consequences for how we will find information on the web in the future, how people, products, services and brands get attention on the web and how value can be extracted from it.
A web of activity streams, and the way information is processed and communicated on this web, using a Twitter API like protocol, is a very tangible realization of the Synaptic Web paradigm. To show you why lets first look at it from a network structure point of view: the neurons are the users of the activity stream clients (= the users of the underlying social media platforms) and the activity streams are (effectively) the firing patterns from one neuron’s synapse to that of others, that is, from one user to other users ‘following’, ’subscribed to’ or ‘friends of’ this user, over all connected social media platforms.
Secondly, just like neural networks the web of user and their activity streams, as a whole, will sense, process and learn. Let me explain, just like neurons in a neural network, we will act as sensors, identifying and augmenting content from ‘the outside world’. We will act as filters and distributors of content we find interesting to others, just like we already do on Twitter. Further, users that notice the output of another user as interesting will connect/follow/befriend that user, just like creating new synaptic connections. This is actually equivalent to learning in the network by adapting its connection structure. Last, the behavior that one user rebroadcasts (retweets/reblogs/replies to etc.) the information broadcasted by another user more often, because this user likes the information a lot is similar to the increase in connection strength between neurons. This is learning in a network through the adaption of connection strengths.
Before I conclude, at this point, I would like to mention the very interesting posts by @deanpomerleau (which deserve a separate response post). He describes how knowledge about neural learning could apply to Twitter (‘Twitter and the Global Brain’) and how this could lead to intelligent applications that (among other things) further help you to filter and sort all content you receive in your activity streams, and that could help you get connected to peers whom are interesting to you, see ‘TweetStream: An App to Drive the Global Brain – Pt 1’ and part 2. Although Dean applies these ideas specifically to Twitter, they are also valid in a global web of activity streams.
To conclude; seriously after this the post really ends!
Opening up the activity streams of social networking services to the public, helps these services to get more engagement from their users and increase their chances to stay relevant. When we would use the Twitter API functionality as a standard protocol to deal with activity streams a web of activity streams is easily realized.
This web of activity streams effectively embodies a Synaptic Web; for one, it resembles the same structure. Further, the fundamental operations of creating content, retweeting, replying and following leads to learning of this new web in terms of adapting its connection structure and strength of connections.
That the emergence of the web of activity streams and its behavior as a synaptic web will have impact on how we communicate on the web, how we search, find and disseminate information, how we learn, collaborate and work together and how we get attention, do marketing and business is in my opinion for sure. In future posts I would like to delve further in to these consequences too.
Last, although the Twitter API is a good start for an open standard protocol driving the web of activity streams, extensions will likely be needed to enable new applications of this web. Further standardized formatting of information to, for instance, identify users on the global activity stream web, directly in text, might be required.
I hope this long post, which is actually a first attempt to order my ideas on this topic, has inspired you. I’m very interested to see your comments, feedback and new ideas!