Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Communication

I attended the NMK forum 2007 today, and it covered a wealth of ground surrounding online communities, social media, entrepreneurship and social networking. The highlights for me were Dan Gillmor’s keynote address, “Citizen Journalism and the Future”; The final panel session of the day, which gave this post its title; and the final Keynote, from a new face for me, the man behind, Jyri Engeström.

The day began, however, with a session from Jason Calcanis. If you don’t know who Jason is, you’ve been under a rock, and shielded from the internet for the last 10 years. Boy does he have a beef with the SEO industry, and I understand entirely why. As he identifies, SEO has led to us having to create web sites which are easy for machines to understand, and not humans, and have ruined online search through gaming. His keynote was all about human centred, and human powered search; understandable given that he announced during the session the launch of Mahalo Greenhouse. Mahalo is a closed wiki, a directory of sites, a curated search engine. The greenhouse is the open side of this closed wiki, where he intends to (shock, horror) actually pay contributors for the search results they contribute, which are then subject to review and potentially inclusion in the directory. It’s an intriguing proposition which seems on the surface to be simply doing things done before, but which actually presented the first of many disruptive innovations we were presented with during the day.

Other key points raised by Jason; 80-90% of the spend on search engine advertising is on the top 25 thousand keywords. The UK is a disappointingly risk averse culture for start-ups. We’re also quite quick to kick each other when taking risks.

The day’s final panel session touch initially on what is, to me, a very compelling concept; the difference between synchornous and asynchronous communication. Presence technologies such as twitter and the avatar led virtual world of Second Life are synchronous – they’re about place and time, and they’re not archived forever. Books, publishing, blogs and other forms of “write then store” media are asynchronous. Very valid points were made about the current creation of identity online, and the difference that the two types of communication present when building identity.

These concepts chimed for me when I thought about my own past experiences of online communities. It began in the mid-nineties with IRC and particularly with interFACE pirate radio. InterFACE was very synchronous. The radio shows were broadcast live from deck to internet. and the chat was an ever-refreshing page of HTML. Once your statements were more than 20 lines old they were gone forever. Then at some point in the mid noughties, internet radio moved from mostly a streaming model (with interFACE the stalwart torch-carriers for truly live internet radio) into a podcasting type environment, essentially morphing from synchro’ to asyncronous content. At the time I saw this as a sensible move. Audiences were small so more could be made of the content created if it were accessible on demand.

Online communities took a similar shift. From IRC and chat-pages, more usage was found for Forums, and we witnessed the birth of blogs, thus moving text comms from synchro’ to asynchro’. Jyri’s keynote was a thorough and well thought out analysis of the key principles and characteristics defining the past and future shape of social networking platforms. It’s well covered by Kevin Anderson at He asked what technology would arise to disrupt the current popular blog-based model. His key requirements (based on the definition of disruptive tech by Clayton Christiensen) were that it must be simpler, cheaper and free users from an inconvenience. And with Jaiku, he had his answer.

With the rise of twitter and Jaiku, the return of live broadcasting (one of the start-ups pitched during the day was SelfCast, currently in beta – also some would say ‘live’ streaming never went away, with outfits like ShoutCast), the massive hype over Second Life and the fears over what trails we might have left in the blogosphere come 20 years from now, I wondered therefore whether we’re seeing the rise of more synchronous forms of community online. Or is it simply that there will be times we use one, and times we use the other, in the same way that blogging and print-journalism are different forms of commentary and reporting?

Probably quite a confused and confusing late-night post. But my brain has been ticking since I left St. Lukes and I’ve only just begun to digest my notes from the day. I’ve yet to talk at all about Dan Gillmor’s address, completely absorbing and inspiring as it was (although he managed not to mention indymedia at all, which was suprising). I’ve also not mentioned Jem Stone‘s words, or Meg Pickard‘s typically clear and useful contributions. God there’s loads in these notes.

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