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In the late 1990s, computer stock monitoring and trading was just beginning to take off. Services with the speed needed to secure a market advantage were expensive to buy, but day-traders I knew at the time were making a killing with this special, if brief, advantage. Fast-forward a decade, and in a world in which bandwidth and access have become commonplace, the algorithms rigged to exploit fast trading and gain razor-thin advantages were partially responsible for a massive economic meltdown. Enter a wrong decimal point equivalent, and markets fall. Set off a tremor in a particularly sensitive area the algorithms measure, and stocks can plummet a few hundred points, shaking confidence throughout a financial system that has come to worship the Dow as the measurement of all things financial.

Real-time financial activity has probably gone too far, and is being ratcheted back by new regulations that are the equivalent of lowering rods into a nuclear furnace, slowing the reactor before another meltdown.

Meanwhile, the real-time Web for information seems to be heating up once more.

Twitter is the poster child of the real-time Web these days, with tweets alerting people to dozens of news items before proper news outlets have time to assemble the facts, package them up, and distribute them. And Twitter keeps getting faster and more fluid. Recently, Twitter began testing User Streams, a way for Twitter updates, retweets, and direct messages to stream into TweetDeck and the like without a need to refresh.

Expectations are changing. You can feel it in our publishing cultures, a change that’s been percolating for years — publish-ahead-of-print or online-first or papers in press or fast-track or red swift or what have you, these ways of meeting the need for speed just continue to compound.

As Mitch Joel on his TwistImage blog states:

It wasn’t too long ago that we debated how the Internet would kill newspapers because by the time the paper hit your porch in the morning, the content was already almost a day old. Now, the content that isn’t updated in real-time – as everything happens – is also starting to feel a little old.

But even the real-time Web can be slowed down. Earlier this week, on the heels of the JetBlue employee’s beer-toting, inflatable-slide-using, expletive-filled exit, another inspired way to quit a job appeared on — this time, it was a girl named Jenny using a whiteboard to tell her awful boss Spenser (with his bad breath and Farmville addiction) that she’d had enough. A day later, at 10 a.m. ET, revealed that Jenny was really Elyse, an actress from Los Angeles, and that the whiteboard tantrum had been a hoax.

While many fell for it, including the Atlantic and Mashable, Peter Kafka at AllThingsD smelled a rat. Sure enough, it was a hoax. However, even his and other common sense suspicions were held in abeyance by a promise from that all would be revealed Wednesday at 10 a.m. ET. Speculation nibbled around the edges, but was deadened by the promised revelations.

There is still something people will wait for — and that’s a punchline, apparently.

For journal publishers, the lesson here is that an embargo still works. People were held in low-level of suspense over whether Jenny would prove to be real or not. So, even with a pretty clear signal that we were in the midst of a hoax, an embargo drove interest, held the line, and bought time.

Journal embargoes have been criticized for years as ineffectual and unnecessary. However, that criticism usually came from sources that wanted to exploit the information themselves (newspaper reporters, for instance), many times because these competitors published at a higher frequency than journals, needed information, and held a speed advantage.

Now, when information is instantaneous and the real-time Web is at work,  attention is what has to be managed. Publishers still play a role in garnering attention, but that takes more than just a brand for most information. And this means setting a pulse, creating packages, and setting expectations.

Positional effects were discovered in arXiv last year. Packaging, timing, and release points matter to awareness and attention, and these effects can compound over time.

Bulk publishing information as soon as it’s ready and in an endless, shapeless stream may satisfy authors, but as the real-time Web continues to speed ahead, embargoes may matter more than ever, and be more effective than ever, for scientific publishers.

They may be one of the few tools we have left to manage the real-time Web. In a world of faster and faster information transmittal, it’s worth remembering that, as in comedy, timing still matters.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.