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December 19, 2011

Time Shifting In a World of Realtime


Nearly three short years ago, the buzz word du jour in tech was “realtime”. Real time discovery. Real time search. Real time serendipity. The explosion of interest in social sharing tools like Twitter, Facebook and FriendFeed (remember this was early 2009) had people (myself included) saying that “Delayed news will no longer be acceptable for early adopters, who will gravitate to the quickest sources of news, wherever they may be.” In practice, while this has occasionally been true, I’ve found a completely divergent innovation to play as big a role in the way I (and others) consume news content and entertainment - that of time shifting, which has remained valuable at a time when most real-time search engines have pivoted or vanished.

Best exemplified by TiVo and other DVRs, preceded by the creaky VCR, the act of consuming media at a time much after its initial airing is so commonplace that live viewings are so uncommon that friends often tiptoe around current storylines for top shows. In some social circles, only the most breaking drama series get the “day it actually aired” treatment - like Breaking Bad, Dexter or Homeland, while everything else goes to TiVo, to be consumed later. (Obviously, I saw the season finales for Dexter and Homeland last night)

News, with some exceptions, can be similarly stored away for later viewing, be it through RSS readers or on your social network of choice. One must not be glued to the real time stream to make sure you don’t miss anything. Instead, the RSS reader traps your own hand-picked links, ready for viewing when you get the opportunity, not necessarily tied to their time of posting.

On the big screen, movies may bank on a massive opening weekend, but with consumers having so many options for entertainment sources, it’s common to see people mention they’ll “wait for Netflix”, which could be months or years away, content to save a few dollars while also getting the comfort of watching in their own home. And if you do find yourself suddenly interested in a show your friends have been seeing which has been out a few seasons, don’t fret, as you can, in almost all cases, catch up - tapping into many options, be they Netflix, Hulu, Xfinity, iTunes or Android Market.

This fall, I made it a personal mission to watch all of Mad Men, after hearing people go on and on about its quality. I powered through it with many late-night Netflix marathons. After finally ordering Showtime, I caught up on this season’s Dexter on Xfinity, and then did the same for Homeland. If my wife misses her favorite shows, she can do the same, tapping into the various video repositories on the web, including the big three networks, typically slower to adapt to the innovation of the web.

I watch my evening talk shows 3 to 5 in a row, from Jon Stewart to Conan, fast forwarding through commercials and skipping uninteresting guests - efficiently getting the best and skipping the rest. It’s almost the same approach I take to my RSS reader or activity on the social networks, skimming, reading, clicking and leaving no prisoners. Even if I’m not constantly connected, and I do a good job of getting close, I don’t feel this sense of missing something.

Realtime reactions to breaking news events, kicked off by an initial discovery, and then rattling around search engines and social media, can’t be duplicated by time shifted content, but for most buckets of content, be they text, audio or video, the drive to be first and in the mix of the story as it is interpreted and curated, is not essential. Advents in information and content sharing over the last few years have instead made “on demand” a reality, getting me what I want when I want it, not when someone else decides for me.