Same time, online. On building Synchronous Social Services

One of the people who has inspired me to try to write more is John Borthwick, who we are lucky to have as an investor in Songkick. He and Andy have written heavily on and invested in the theme of the ‘now’ or 'real time’ web. There’s a subset of that 'now’ meme that I’m particularly excited about, and that is synchronous social services.

I love live music, and Songkick’s mission is to make it a more mainstream experience. It is probably the largest scale 'synchronous’ offline social experience you can have. 100,000 people all standing in a field as Jay-Z comes out and satirises the British Rock Establishment at Glastonbury:

Why could online synchronous experiences be a big deal?

Over the past few years, two of the most unique web applications to emerge have been Chatroulette and For me the reason for that is that they have introduced new modes of synchronous social behaviour.

Humans do things everyday that require offline synchronicity - same place, same time, same focus. Meals, concerts, playing games or sport, surgical operations, sex, demonstrations, and good old conversation over a pint.

Moving something online typically dilutes it for me - I’m less excited about watching a livestream of a band play live than seeing them in the flesh. However there are ways in which moving an experience online can relax constraints and create important new experiences:

1. Removing the constraint of co-location

This is the most common derivation of synchronous or semi-synchronous web services - enabling things that would have normally happened offline, to still happen, even when the parties are not in the same location. E.g Skype, IM. Keeping in touch with loved ones is such a deep human need that these services reached epic scale relatively early in the web’s evolution. We will trade the vitality of a face to face conversation for an online version if that is all we can have.

Another example of this is telesurgery, enabling surgical specialists to perform operations wherever a patient is located assuming a telerobotic setup is possible.

Now, same place = the internet.

This is part of the magic of Turntable for me - being able to listen to music with someone wherever they are, similar to how I would sit with a friend playing records back and forth for an evening. I think this is part of why the international licensing issues that have cut off Turntable everywhere outside of the US have felt so brutal.

2. Removing the constraints of location size & increasing number of synchronous participants

Massive synchronous multiplayer games are an interesting example. Offline games are somewhat constrained by the number of people you can fit round a board or console. I’m fascinated by new online synchronous games that combine the elegance of Go or Chess with a huge volume of concurrent players.

Another is around concurrently consuming media. This is part of the magic of 4chan, tens of thousands of concurrent viewers and the consequences of that synchronicity.

Another offline example of synchronous social behaviour that hasn’t really migrated online yet is demonstrations. I’m not talking about some Facebook poll that builds up asynchronously over time, but the online equivalent of the 1963 Civil Rights March. It’s a more frivolous use case, but Anthony’s idea to hold back a Hypem relaunch until 10,000 people were concurrently on the Hypem homepage was an early (2007!) and super creative indicator of how a demonstration could move synchronously online.

3. Removing some of the risks of offline synchronous behaviour

The way that Chatroulette lowered the risk of meeting new people 'face to face’ was a  example of this. Yes online you might see a penis, but it’s not going get worse that that. This 'lower risk’ version of offline synchronous social experiences feels very ripe for exploration.

4. Relaxed identity constraint

I’m a believer in the need for pseudonymous or anonymous social experiences. Offline this has always been possible - from the bar in Lost in Translation, to a fancy dress party.

Virtual worlds like Second Life felt like an example of this but I think we’ll see more modern equivalents emerge in the next few years. A place to experiment with our identities.

A lack of distribution for synchronous social services?

That’s all well and good, but the 2 coolest new synchronous services that I’ve mentioned have both suffered from the same engagement pattern.

(source: Alexa)

(Source: Alexa)

There are people out there arguing that this is to do with penises, or the services being non-substantive. I don’t agree with that. I think they’re seriously cool and should be growing not declining. I think the spike/crash might be due to the lack of a distribution channel for synchronous experiences. Facebook, Twitter and Google all are asynchronous distribution platforms. Yes, if you spend enough time on twitter, it moves closer to synchronous, but like IM it’s designed to approach synchronicity asymptotically and never quite reach it.

These existing distribution platforms allow these new synchronous services to grow explosively as chatter & buzz build over time, but there is no distribution to drive continued synchronous engagement.

I think we’ll see some kind of distribution mechanism for synchronous experiences emerge and when it does, a wider set of synchronous online experiences will emerge, and see more stable engagement patterns. Mobile seems like where this will occur given the need for an immediate response.

I’m excited to see what happens next. Meanwhile am going to enjoy being in the US for a week and head to Turntable for an hour.