NSFW: Weezer, plane crashes and everything else that's worrying about the real-time web

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69adget's OhMiBod Freestyle Review

1250698774-weezerA little before 9pm on Wednesday night and I’m standing on the ‘VIP’ balcony of San Francisco’s Regency Ballroom, holding a can of something called ‘MySpace Buzz’ and waiting for Weezer to take to the stage. It’s a weird scene, all told, and not just because I thought Weezer was dead.

The bulk of the weirdness stems from the make-up of the crowd: a dozen feet below me in the main auditorium there are maybe a couple of thousand writhing teenagers – Weezer fans to a (wo)man, cheering and shouting and jumping and sweating and doing all the things I remember doing a little over a decade ago.

These are the invited fans; those lucky enough to have been chosen to attend this ‘secret show’, organised by MySpace. You know, for kids. Every so often one of the stage lights picks out a tiny puff of smoke in the crowd. Ah, you crazy kids and your pot: I feel like I’ve been transported back in time.

By contrast, there are no kids up on the VIP balcony. Instead there are the ‘important guests of MySpace’ – or at least those who had enough sway with Dani Dudeck to get on the invite list. If you’d told me back in 2001 – the last time I last saw Weezer live – that when I next saw them I’d be standing next to noted-non-rock-kids Scoble and Loic LeMeur (“is zis Weezer a famous band?”), I wouldn’t have believed you. I’d also have asked you what ‘scobul’ is.

And yet despite the obvious differences between the two groups -the kids down there and the grown ups up here – there is one thing we have in common. Almost everyone – young or old – has a phone in their hand.

As befits their demographic, the kids are using their Nokias as cameras – pointing them at the stage in anticipation of their heroes’ arrival. And as befits our demographic, we grown ups are using our iPhones to tweet that same anticipation, but only – of course – after we’d checked in to the venue on Foursquare. “Wow. The real-time web is awesome”, I remarked, to no one in particular.

And Weezer, to their credit, agreed with my sarcasm. After their first song – Hash Pipe, if you’re interested – Rivers Cuomo came to the front of the stage to talk to the audience. For a man who has been doing this longer than most of the crowd have been alive, he was oddly ill at ease. Still, he had the measure of his fans: “remember,” he said “this is a secret gig, so shhhhhh, no writing about it on Facebook or Twitter.”

Somewhere across the room, a MySpace PR groaned, and threw herself off the VIP balcony.

Cuomo was joking of course – a ham-fisted attempt at a target reference – but there was a strange and tragic truth in his plea. I mean, what were we all doing? Filming and tweeting and checking in rather than just putting our phones away and enjoying the gig. Why does the world need two thousand photos of the same band on the same stage, all taken from a slightly different angle. That kind of 360 degree imagery might have been useful on the day Kennedy was shot – not least because it would have kept Oliver Stone quiet – but for a Weezer gig? And what’s the point of checking in on Foursquare at a ticketed event that no one else can get into. You might as well tweet “I’m a dick” and be done with it.

And yet this real-time mentality – pictures/tweets or it didn’t happen – continues to seep into every aspect of our lives, both personally and professionally. Whereas once we might attend a conference to watch the speakers and perhaps learn something, today our priority is to live blog it – to ensure our followers know we’re on the inside; first with whatever news might be broken. And it’s not just journalists doing the live-blogging, but anyone with a laptop and a wifi connection.

Hell, we can’t even have lunch or drinks with a friend without tweeting, Foursquaring and probably photographing the occasion. No matter how unimportant the event, the actual experience of something has become secondary to our capturing of it and telling our followers. (Even celebrities aren’t immune – to the point where studios like Disney have started to include non-Tweet clauses into contracts to stop their stars real-time broadcasting spoilers and gossip from on-set.)

Worse still, we’re told that this is the future. The real-time web – a web where every single thought that enters our head, or image that passes our eyes, can be instantly captured, shared and archived for the approbation of our friends and followers. At O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 Summit both Google and Microsoft announced deals with Twitter to integrate tweets with search results. Marissa Mayer proudly boasted that this would allow Google users to find information so fresh that there hadn’t even been time for anyone to write a proper indexable blog post about it. No more of that irritating forethought or composition.

The week before O’Reilly’s event, ReadWriteWeb hosted a ‘Real Time Web Summit‘ to talk about all things instant. Last year’s LeWeb in Paris had the somewhat nebulous theme of ‘Love’; this year the theme is – yep – the real-time web. Hell, even TechCrunch is in on the game with its ‘Real-Time Crunch-Up’s. And of course every ten minutes somewhere in the world, Jeff Pulver is hosting another of his 140 Characters conferences. I hear the one in Antarctica is a sell-out.

The assumption at all of these events is the same: real-time is where we’re heading; real time is good. Newspapers were good, cable news was great, blogs were better, instant attention bursts are best.

Hmmmm.

This week, the Christian Science Monitor reported that American judges are having to remind jurors that they’re not allowed to tweet from the jury room. I shit you not. In February, a juror in the trial of an Arkansas lumber supplier tweeted – during deliberations – his opinion that the defendant’s company will “probably cease to exist, now that their wallet is 12m lighter.” Meanwhile in Philadelphia, a juror posted daily updates from the courtroom including – and this is awesome – on the eve of their verdict: “stay in touch for a big announcement on Monday everyone.”

Don’t touch that dial, folks, we’ll be in jaw-dropping contempt of court right after these messages.

Less illegal, but just as worrying, is how the real-time generation reacts whenever disaster strikes. I first noticed the trend back in 2005 when London’s transport network was bombed by mentally defective al-Quaeda fan-boys. The first footage to emerge from the attacks was not from the BBC or CNN but camera phone imagery taken by survivors as they walked through the Underground tunnels to safety. The pictures caused all manner of hand-wringing at the time: is that what has become of London’s famous Blitz spirit, pundits asked, documenting our fellow man’s suffering as if it were some macabre reality show that we might want to re-watch time and again with our friends? Just four years later – after the Hudson crash and a hundred other real-time news events – we wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

Advocates of the real-time web argue that this is simply a branch of citizen journalism – a desire by those holding the cameras and laptops to ensure that the world knows that something dramatic is happening. In truth the desire is far more cynical: to ensure that the world knows that we were there when something dramatic happened. I was on the scene, I was somewhere you weren’t – and I have the photos and tweets and videos to prove it. Check out my YouTube account; follow me on Twitter. LOOK AT ME, LOOKING AT THIS.

And it’s not just a question of micro-ego: when a juror is tweeting teasers from the jury room, part of them must know that a guilty verdict is much more exciting to their audience than one of innocence. How can that not subconsciously influence them? Likewise when we – the real-time generation – watch someone being attacked in the street or a plane crashing into our building and instinctively reach for our phones, can we be sure that our first impulse will be to dial 911, rather than firing up Tweetdeck or clicking the camera icon to ensure we get props for being there? I mean, really sure? In a perverse twist on the uncertainty principle, knowing that our behavior is being observed inevitably changes it for the more dramatic. Just look at reality TV.

And that’s when the real-time web – for all the attention it’s getting right now – starts to look less like a brave new world, and more like the path to a hideous dystopia. A world where our reaction to any event, no matter how serious, is influenced, not by what’s right, but by how it will play with our micro-audience. An audience that, thanks to Google and Microsoft’s wholehearted support of the real-time web, is about to get even bigger and more tempting.

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