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Time is arguably one of the most important concepts in digital and social media: its significance is reflected in epochal terms, the digital age. From about 1980 on, the World Wide Web has grown and evolved into information technologies that more and more activities depend on more and more of the time, user time has increased, and online forms and practices have altered understandings of temporality – and historicity.

Immediacy and daily life have taken on new significance through digital time, as has “happening now” as news. One effect of this presentist turn is to diffuse and dilute the significance of digital history: inventions are increasingly forgotten as the next update activates new features of communication.

See also our Timeline showing a selection of digital events and evolutions through digital history, which depends on time presented as narrative.


  • The global reach of digital time
  • Always on, or the rise of 24-7
  • Surveillance and streaming
  • Breaking news: “happening now”
  • Time short, long, too much, compressed
  • Timeline
Animated clock gif from
Figure 1. Source:

Time frames

World time

The most watched clock in the world must be the digital clock in Windows. That a clock was included from the beginning of the world’s most used software says how important time is to online activity. Microsoft retains a small team, known as Time Lords, who deal with making adjustments to the clock ahead of time (time can be changed independently of time zones, for instance in daylight savings.) “If you want to know what time it was in a specific location in a specific year, you go to the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority time zone database. Spearheaded by UCLA computer scientist Paul Eggert and backed by the internet standards organization ICANN, the IANA TZDB – how’s that for an acronym – is an open-source compendium of time data: What it is, what it was, and when it changes.” Besides storing the global records of local time, the Microsoft clock defines present time: since over 90 percent of the world’s desktops run Windows, “For a significant chunk of the population, the time is what Microsoft says it is.”1

On Windows 10, you can set up clocks for three time zones, a faint digital reminder of that ancient day-and-night rhythm which means humans everywhere have to sleep sometime. Even sleep time can be digitally monitored through apps which analyze patterns of movement. (See the Virtual Dear Diary exhibition2 sleep diary film by Rachael Kent on the King’s College, London website.) Self-monitoring flourishes, in sequential and continuous forms. Surveillance comes on round-the-clock forms for states and citizens, and even has its own art.

Surveillance art

Surveillance art is the use of technology intended to record human behavior in a way that offers commentary on the process of surveillance or the technology used to surveil. Surveillance art manifests itself in many different forms, from short films to architecture, but all have been shown to provide some type of critical response to the rise of surveillance by various authorities and the technology used to achieve it, especially when dealing with issues of security and enforcing laws.3

One respected instance of surveillance art is by Hasan Elahi. In 2002 he was stopped at Detroit Airport by FBI agents. The experience led to his art project, currently titled Tracking Transience v2.2.

“Poke around his site and you'll find more than 20,000 images stretching back three years. Elahi has documented nearly every waking hour of his life during that time. He posts copies of every debit card transaction, so you can see what he bought, where, and when. A GPS device in his pocket reports his real-time physical location on a map.”4

Mimicking surveillance ironizes the state: you can see the subject’s location all the time, so what can there be to hide?5

24-7 time

Twenty-four-hour streaming also makes a virtue of mundanity: all sorts of people do it from choice. Art here is present, if at all, in the form of the art of living, which is revealed by webcam artlessness. Continuous time becomes a guarantee of authenticity; there is no time for editing, hence you see unvarnished truths. A discussion thread on Reddit debates the most interesting 24-7 webcams.5 Besides watching wildlife, ghosts, trains, and many other elusive things, you can watch your fellow human beings:

NSFW Guy sets up webcams in apartments and you get to watch them 24-7 eat, sleep, pee/puke, sex, etc.6

Yes this is real

Yes they are aware of the cameras

They are doing it because the website helps pay living expenses

They do frequently have sex

It is not super exciting, once you've seen them fuck you’ve seen it a million times

Is, are, do: the webcam’s default grammar is present tense. Voyeurism is partly time dependent, a gaze extended in time: others may wish to look away now. Short time has, though, returned as a measure: we value fast downloads, instant connections; we know the length in time of what we download or transact; we are annoyed when told, “your session has timed out.” Space, once time’s partner, is lesser in digital – most people looking at their phones can’t look where they are going at the same time. Space is reconfigured in digital measures of byte, kilobyte, gigabyte, terabyte – although we conveniently forget the physical space required to service giant data centers. One in Switzerland is hidden 3,000 feet under a mountain but is described as at the heart of Europe in digital time: “it’s 1–2 data milliseconds from Zurich and Milan with Zurich airport less than an hour away by car.”7

In the digital age, the world is necessarily global (because the digital community is), and 24-7 is the time version of data being global: comprehensive, continuous, complete. This virtual fullness is, however, also curiously empty: hence the idea of the feed. In 2006 Facebook devised a News Feed, so that new posts and updates could be viewed as a feature in themselves, not just on users’ profiles. In 2011 Facebook launched its Timeline feature, scrolling back through your history to produce a selective life story for you. These algorithmic understandings of autobiography were critically received, satirized, and parodied; composite selves curated from digital archives receded into the past.

If Facebook’s Timeline tried to colonize the user’s past, Twitter moved to occupy the present by promoting immediacy: “What’s happening now?” displacing “What people are talking about?” where the now is implied more diffusely. Multimedia news feeds across platforms and apps promise the latest, up-to-the-second information; news becomes “breaking news.” The reach of “happening now” blurs previously distinct categories of public and private: “news” embraces political events, celebrity utterances, popular memes, reportage from your own life, and most kinds of shareable content. BuzzFeed, founded in 2006, combines news and entertainment, not least by drawing on social media to define and circulate material as trending. As one executive put it, “‘A big part of what we do with breaking news at BuzzFeed is incorporating social into breaking news,’ she said, such as using Instagram images to illustrate first-person accounts.”8,9 News, as shareable storytelling, has moved beyond citizen journalism into a murky world of appropriations, fakery, and falsity.10 Where breaking news was once a term for interruption of a news program, it can now refer to the most significant item or content covered live. That creates a means by which news can keep some newness.

Time short and long

Over more than two decades of internet use, attention spans are short: around 15 seconds on any page, according to internet wisdom,11 and between 10 and 20 seconds according to analytics. Adding reading times to articles appeared to make readers stay on a page longer, suggesting time’s importance comes from its parts.

If allocation of time entails agency, fragmentation presses less. In April 2009, journalist Mark Armstrong started using a #longreads hashtag on Twitter. He wanted a way for people to find and recommend long-form, “magazine-length” stories online. Before long, Longreads had its own Twitter handle and then website, which featured only articles and stories longer than 1,500 words.12 Yet short forms flourish in digital: from SMS to short narratives, patterns of communication grow shorter; attuned to compression and speed, users learn new forms of rapidity. Acronyms, increasingly ubiquitous in everyday speech, are one effect of this. Digital-specific ones include LOL, WTF, OMG, and IMHO, which have moved into common use from a time in texting when abbreviation reduced the cost of a message.

Experimental speeds in various media create new experiences from changing time. As Rob Gallagher’s work on videogames shows,13 the split-second responses elicited by “twitchy” real-time videogames running at 60 frames per second suggest how radically the timescales of digital computation differ from those of human perception and cognition, while showing how bodies and computers are adapting in the attempt to accommodate one another.

The impact of digital on perceptions of time encompasses not only its organization but also its reorganization. Digital time has fluidity because reorganizing is potentially perpetual. Reflecting on lateness, Andrew O’Hagan comments on generational differences in this respect:

In the old days, young people made plans before leaving the house…we pretty much kept to whatever plans had been made because in transit you would be out of touch. Today’s young phone-user finds it normal to enter into a daily festival of editing and circumnavigating what has been mooted – he detests firm plans, even firm suggestions – because texting allows him to do it all on the hoof. Being mobile, and having one, means he is in step with his desires, so why would he choose to be enslaved to a thing that seemed desirable yesterday or ten minutes ago? Perhaps timekeeping is now for the birds (or for old birds).14

Media consumers are also increasingly watching time-shifted TV, or programs at other times than in network schedules, thanks also to streaming services which make possible on-demand viewing of TV and movies. After 2013, when Netflix released episodes simultaneously, binge watching, or viewing multiple episodes at one sitting, became an increasing phenomenon (and word of the year for Collins English Dictionary in 2015.)

One of the important contributions of Ego Media research is to reach across generational differences to connect digital media to pre-digital practices and materials. Thus Rob Gallagher’s projects Moving Past Present15 and Animating Sight and Song16 were informed by debates within queer theory regarding anachronism and ahistoricism. Where many scholars insist that it is crucial not to misrepresent historical subjects by projecting contemporary categories and concerns back into the past, others have considered how willful anachronism can function as an aesthetic strategy and argued that “distorting” forms of identification are inevitable – and can be especially valuable for communities who, having been largely written out of history, lack access to what Lillian Faderman calls a “usable past.” Rendering historical materials more available while often working to decontextualize them, online platforms have given these questions renewed relevance. “What will you try next?” asks Pinterest, for example, evoking a near future, though its official description – “Explore over 100 billion new ideas for every part of your life, from what haircut to get to what to make for dinner” – skips over the glaring mismatch between the time required to explore 100 billion ideas and a daily routine of dinnertime. Social media platforms tend to use relentlessly present tense verbs – and a defined agent, you – to promote an impression of agency: explore, create, use, connect, participate, share, like. Presentism is aesthetically uncertain, however, which is why apps that supply filters for photographs, like VSCO (Visual Supply Company), define effects in relation to time-established categories like modern or vintage.

One big anxiety about time in the digital age is about how much is spent online or on social media. A frame of “too much” is often evoked, especially for children, with comparisons to how much time is therefore less available for offline activities. The term “always-on” appeared in 1994 (to describe uninterrupted broadband, according to the Oxford English Dictionary); in the 2010s, online time clashed with night time as evening use of digital and social media were seen to interfere with users’ ability to sleep. “Why was the first thing I did in the morning and the last thing at night to check my ‘status updates’? Was an involuntary reflex action during times of boredom?” Matthew Bailes, reviewing his use of Facebook, asked “Was there a better use of my time?”17 Simple plug-ins enable sites to show the latest post first, organizing information in terms of time and implying importance according to newest; we learned a backwards-in-time reading practice too, down comment threads.

Time shapes forms: diaries, organized around the dia, or day; short stories; crises, which are both extraordinary and so frequent on social media they are also everyday. Digital time entails questions of durability; some materials can be archived, but not all the Web’s history is captured by the otherwise inestimable Wayback Machine (launched in 2001 with 10 billion archived web pages). Shortness of use is also a perennial issue in relation to devices, where functions get extended only by upgrades, regularly sold as staples. Wendy Chun’s Updating to Remain the Same identifies a phenomenon whereby new and now come to represent each other. Twitter’s tag of “See what’s happening in the world right now” allows for no illusion of delay between posting and reading: instantaneity govern both.

Digital media have recreated ideas and practices of instantaneity – from initial sequentiality of chatrooms to the simultaneity of automediality across platforms, and digital forms have adopted explicit configurations of time. Digital diaries, for instance, can use photos and GPS which are time-tagged, a reversion to temporal specificities, precise moments, which counterpoints a previous webcam culture which streamed around the clock. From sleep apps monitoring time when we are not conscious of it to the fractural segmentation of time in lifelogging (lengths of time spent in exercise, for instance), the monitoring and recording of time is an essential component of online life. What Philippe Lejeune called “dated traces” are spread across digital media in ways which help constitute, reveal, and sometimes conceal a self. Indeed time underpins the quantified self, in that lifelogging’s collection of data across time provides reference points for the self to compare itself in time: yesterday, last week, last month, last year.

Ego Media research is complicit with particular models of time in terms of choice of methodologies. The interview, for instance, catalyzes retrospection in relation to a present established and bracketed by the interview itself; the questionnaire similarly plays on a time transactionality between actions (past and present) and reportage (necessarily presentist). Academic arguments tend to acquire authority by referencing arguments made authoritative by being recently published; scholars anticipated social media users in valuing keeping up with the latest.

Further reading

Bailes, Matthew. “Facebook: The Last Post?” The Conversation, September 8, 2014.

Brant, Clare, and Rob Gallagher, eds. “Digital Media: Life-Changing Online.” Special issue European Journal of Life Writing, 2019.

Burdick, Alan. Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Chao Liu, Ryen W. White, and Susan Dumais. “Understanding Web Browsing Behaviors through Weibull Analysis of Dwell Time.” In Proceedings of the 33rd International ACM SIGIR Conference on Research and Development in Information Retrieval (SIGIR 2010). Geneva, Switzerland, July 19–23, 2010.

Chun, Wendy Hui Kwon. Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual Media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2016.

Hansen, Mark B. N. Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Heitkamp, Kristina Lyn. Fake News and the Factories That Make It. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow Publishing, 2019.

Lejeune, Philippe. On Diary. Edited by Jeremy D. Popkin and Julie Rak. Translated by Katherine Durnin. Biographical Research Center, University of Hawai’i, 2009.

O’Hagan, Andrew. “On Being Late.” London Review of Books 41, no. 2, January 24, 2019.

Ego Media timeline

For a timeline combining developments in new media and associated technologies, key events relevant to our Ego Media work, and the chronology of the project, the Ego Media Timeline.18 It does not attempt a comprehensive history of new media. It can be read alongside our Diaries Timeline19 on the Ego Media research website,20 which it crisscrosses.

There are of course many ways to select and depict: compare Histography21 as a version of history, Digital History22 as an interactive history through timelines, and Google Timeline23 as a way of mapping personal travel in digital time.

The survival of digital materials is fragile, even with the Wayback Machine24 (from 2001 on) and other archives, including museums and libraries, which are also digitizing their material contents. Museums are emerging, devoted to objects of the digital age and the history of computing.25,26,27,28

Books survive for hundreds of years: how long will the future be for the Ego-Media project’s digital output? Designers described it as likely to be one of graceful degradation – that is, it should retain basic functionality even when users move on to new systems (the opposite is progressive enhancement, or adding functionality.)

The Ego-Media project officially had a lifetime of five years, the maximum time for big grants. Is that a long time? Will its influence last longer?

Where to now?


  1. Brian Barrett, “How Microsoft’s ‘Time Lords’ Keep the Clocks Ticking,” Wired, November 15, 2017,
  2. Max Saunders et al., “Diaries 2.0,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,
  3. See "Surveillance Art," Wikipedia, Accessed December 4, 2020,
  4. See Clive Thompson, "The Visible Man: An FBI Target Puts His Whole Life Online," Wired, May 27, 2007,
  5. See Hasan Elahi's Digital Dialogue: Tracking Transience: The Orwell Project at
  6. “What Are Some of the Most Interesting 24/7 Live-Streaming Webcams to Watch from around the World?,” Reddit: Ask Reddit, 2018,
  7. Real Life Cam, n.d.,
  8. See Marcus Austin, "Ten extreme data centres. OK... nine," The Register, August 24, 2015.
  9. Ryan Broderick, “Surreal Instagrams From Watertown Residents Trapped In Their Homes,” Buzzfeed, April 19, 2013,
  10. See Doree Shafrir, International Journalism Festival 2013, quoted in Rachel Bartlett, “#ijf13: The Recipe for Social, Shareable Storytelling at BuzzFeed.” Journalism, 29 April 2013. Accessed December 4, 2020.
  11. Ash Read, “55% of Visitors Read Your Articles For 15 Seconds or Less: Why We Should Focus on Attention Not Clicks,” Buffer, June 28, 2016,
  12. Kristina Lyn Heitkamp, Fake News and the Factories That Make It (Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 2019).
  13. Rob Gallagher, “Videogames, Identity and Digital Subjectivity,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,
  14. Akshat Biyani, “How Estimated Reading Times Increase Content Engagement,” MarTech, May 10, 2022, The effects of digital reading on attention spans and comprehension are discussed further in Reflection 4: Writing for online reading.
  15. See Andrew O’Hagan, “On Being Late,” London Review of Books, January 24, 2019, 14.
  16. Rob Gallagher, “Moving Past Present,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,
  17. Rob Gallagher, “Animating Sight and Song,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,
  18. Matthew Bailes, “Facebook: The Last Post?,” The Conversation, September 8, 2014,
  19. Max Saunders et al., “Ego Media Timeline,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,
  20. Rob Gallagher, “Diaries Timeline,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,
  21. Max Saunders et al., “Ego Media,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,
  22. Matan Stauber, Histography, n.d.,
  23. S. Mintz and S. McNeil, “Timeline,” Digital History, 2021,
  24. Google Timeline, n.d.,
  25. “Wayback Machine,” Internet Archive, n.d.,
  26. “Museum Gallery,” Nokia Museum, n.d.,
  27. Dobšiná Mobile Museum, n.d.,
  28. The National Museum of Computing, 2023,
  29. “List of Computer Museums,” in Wikipedia, 2016,


  • Bailes, Matthew. “Facebook: The Last Post?” The Conversation, September 8, 2014.
  • Barrett, Brian. “How Microsoft’s ‘Time Lords’ Keep the Clocks Ticking.” Wired, November 15, 2017.
  • Biyani, Akshat. “How Estimated Reading Times Increase Content Engagement.” MarTech, May 10, 2022.
  • Broderick, Ryan. “Surreal Instagrams From Watertown Residents Trapped In Their Homes.” Buzzfeed, April 19, 2013.
  • Gallagher, Rob. “Videogames, Identity and Digital Subjectivity.” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.
  • Gallagher, Rob. “Moving Past Present.” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.
  • Gallagher, Rob. “Animating Sight and Song.” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.
  • Gallagher, Rob. “Diaries Timeline.” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.
  • Heitkamp, Kristina Lyn. Fake News and the Factories That Make It. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 2019.
  • Mintz, S., and S. McNeil. “Timeline.” Digital History, 2021.
  • O’Hagan, Andrew. “On Being Late.” London Review of Books, January 24, 2019.
  • Read, Ash. “55% of Visitors Read Your Articles For 15 Seconds or Less: Why We Should Focus on Attention Not Clicks.” Buffer, June 28, 2016.
  • Saunders, Max, Clare Brant, Leone Ridsdale, and Alexandra Georgakopoulou. “Diaries 2.0.” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.
  • Saunders, Max, Clare Brant, Alexandra Georgakopoulou, and Leone Ridsdale. “Ego Media Timeline.” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.
  • Saunders, Max, Lisa Gee, Clare Brant, Alexandra Georgakopoulou, Leone Ridsdale, Rob Gallagher, Rachael Kent, Alison McKinlay, and Rebecca Roach. “Ego Media.” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.
  • Stauber, Matan. Histography, n.d.
  • Reddit: Ask Reddit. “What Are Some of the Most Interesting 24/7 Live-Streaming Webcams to Watch from around the World?,” 2018.
  • Real Life Cam, n.d.
  • Google Timeline, n.d.
  • Internet Archive. “Wayback Machine,” n.d.
  • Nokia Museum. “Museum Gallery,” n.d.
  • Dobšiná Mobile Museum, n.d.
  • The National Museum of Computing, 2023.
  • “List of Computer Museums.” In Wikipedia, 2016.