Semantic Series of Tubes

The semantic web as a concept has been around for quite some time. It pre-dates, Web 2.0 in fact, even though people sometimes refer to it as Web 3.0 or some other term that denotes its place as the next-next evolution of “teh Intertubes”.

It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes.

Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the Internet (I know it’s funnier to say Al Gore did), said in 1999:

I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web – the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A ‘Semantic Web’, which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The ‘intelligent agents’ people have touted for ages will finally materialize.

Heady stuff for sure.

When taken at that level, making the web semantic seems like a job for eggheads in white coats, at least to me, i.e. it’s a scientific pursuit with massive chunks of really dense code.

Reading this post on O’Reilly Radar the other day about Twitter as a source for semantic information, makes it seem much closer. Turns out the socialization of the ‘tubes may provide the best metadata against which smart algorithms (ha, al-gore-ithm) can produce really good, erm semantic, results.

The post on Radar is worth a read, even if you don’t use Twitter. Basically, the core point is that analyzing a person’s tweets can tell you a lot more about that person, even more than a social network profile would.  The author, Nick Bilton, gives himself and his tweets as an example:

A quick perusal of my Tweets shows that I live in Brooklyn, NY, I work for The New York Times, teach at NYU/ITP, I travel somewhere once a month for work, I love gardening, cappuccinos, my Vespa , U.I./Design and hardware hacking, I’m a political news junkie, I read Gizmodo & and I was looking for a new car for a while, but now have a MINI and I’m also friends with these people. That’s a treasure trove of data about me, and it’s semantic on a granular level about only my interests.

If you use Twitter, scan your tweets to see how much information you share, and then remember that tweets are indexed by search engines, unless you secure them. This provides enormous potential for an automatic recommendation service; I sometimes use Twitter for questions or recommendations anyway, and having a bot that could reply to specific requests, analyze my tweets and their network effects, and return an answer would be sweet.

This ties in nicely with the personal algorithm I’ve talked about in the past. Think about how much better your ‘tubes could be if you could apply a rating or even TiVo-style thumb up/down to everything.

Facebook does some of this with the News Feed, allowing you to control how content you see from your friends and set how valuable you find each friend’s content. As people pump more content into Facebook, the News Feed becomes better at showing you what you want to see. Still, it’s a closed system, so there’s no portability or application outisde Facebook. You’re locked in, by design.

I’ve extolled the virtues of Google Reader’s Shared Items several times. I find that browsing the Shared Items of people I know applies a social filter to the ‘tubes, which leads me to interesting content. If Google Reader added a thumb up/down or rating to feed items and feeds and used the Google Search backend to find similar content, that would produce great results.

Of course, the downside to the social or semantic web is the improvement of advertising models. I suppose this could be a good thing, but most people don’t like to be pitched. Worse yet, identity theft becomes much when you have a lot of personal information to use.

I guess opting in would be an acceptance of these potentially bad side effects. Would it be worth it to you?

So, I expect a social web to develop more quickly as people flock to social networks and provide information about themselves. As the algorithms get more advanced and people (and businesses) provide more information, the semantic web will take shape.

Pretty cool (and potentially scary) stuff.

Find the comments and share your thoughts.




  1. That's a great summary of where we all want Web 3.0 to take us.

    I'd argue that “the improvement of advertising models” is not necessarily a downside to the semantic web. In my life, advertising models seem to be billboards, cold calling and mail drops. A smaller number of laser targeted adverts would be a welcome change – whilst saturation brand-building will only engender my enmity.

    If I can ask my ad-manager-bot to recommend a bunch of $PRODUCTS meeting my requirements and ignore previously blocked advertisers, then great, bring on the semantic web!

    APML seems like an excellent technology for ad servers to invest in but it would definitely need the ability to deal with temporal changes.

  2. Hmm, I read this twice.

    The first time, I was all, “ugh, advertising”. The second time, I was like, “he's got a point”.

    I'm so conditioned to ignoring ads, the thought of targeted ads is annoying by default, but you make an interesting point. Would it be better if it were actually valuable? Maybe.

    That would bring broadcast TV to its knees. Why run an ad on broadcast TV with old school demographic information when you can run it online and use the semantic ad target thingy?

    I might still hate advertising though, which makes me wonder if the answer lies in social advertising, e.g. you buy a product and get range of rebates if you share your purchase and any reviews with your network of friends. That adds a measure of trust to the equation.

    Weird times.

  3. Sure, I get that semantic web is better what than what is described, but there are a couple problems natch:

    1) Does the consumer web care about what's better right now? Meh, I think Bilton's use cases appeal to the now, not to the what could be better. It's baby stepping.

    2) Your post sounds like the mad scientist stuff that makes semantic web too heady for my taste.

    3) Does all that stuff you mention support MySQL? Me doubts that. Most of the consumer web data out there are not stored in Oracle. The LAMP stack types won't buy Oracle Spatial and all those other great products. There's no capital for that, especially now. So, how can you realize all that potential?

    And hey thanks for the trackback, while you leave one here, jerk 🙂

  4. 1) Bilton's use case presupposes the capabilities I outline. The key part of his post for realization of the use case is this: “Why not build out an advertising or search API that delivers the latest micro level tags or ad links of users interests?” Delivery of the microformat tags (or ad links) is crucial before the tubes can understand enough of the data to make the vision a reality. This *is* the baby step. Before that can happen, the info must be aggregated (ok RSS is good enough for that) but then the extraction API's (like OpenCalais or ClearForest or even what Oracle SES does) need to be implemented to extract/create the tags. Then the machines can start processing to drive ads or fuzzy search results or whatever. Barring that you still have google algorithm based pattern matching.


    3)look at the first result here:

    4)trackback issue fixed

  5. 1) Sure, but your post strays way off into the land of Skynet. Or I'm an empty vessel. Could be both.
    2) Refer to 1.
    3) Great, that's not Oracle Spatial though. Are they equivalent? What about all the other products you list? Just wondering how the gap closes between the really useful data and the products.
    4) Not an issue, just something I noticed. I like to rattle your cage.

    Bonus points for using letmegooglethatforyou.

  6. Damn your comment moderating!

    I need more use cases to make this real, so we should chat about ways to do this in Connect and OraTweet.

  7. Reading these comments, I'm pleased and interested to see how people attack this from specialized angles of interest. One thing is for certain, Sir Tim has a very beautiful mind and the human race could be more thankful for his existence. I'd rather look at the semantic web from a higher level to better understand its implications.

    The way I see it, the semantic web will represent the most important advance in human technology yet. It will help bring us to Kurzweil's “Technological Singularity”:…. So I think it's kinda funny that people are talking about Twitter and advertising dollars. Just think. We're talking about bringing OOP to the real world. Potentially every object in the world (physical or non-physical), possessing attributes, capable of verbs, networked together… What objects relate and what value do the relationships bring (data mining)? Add artificial intelligence and intelligent agents. This is really serious stuff and I think that ethical researchers need to help prepare us for the inevitable…

  8. Wow, you're really thinking big: “the semantic web will represent the most important advance in humanity that we will have seen”.

    I have a hard time believing that the 'tubes can ever be converted to something that important. So, maybe it's time for the white coats to start over with a new 'tubes. Think Skynet 2.0 or HAL.

    Don't get me wrong, what you're predicting sounds great; it's just really hard to see it happening in my lifetime. Plus, I have a high level of distrust for those types of ventures, and not just because movies tell me so.

  9. A vast majority of commerce, indeed by far the largest part of the US economy (excluding the money conjuring alchemy happening down Manhattan) is based upon convincing people to purchase things that they do not need.

    How does having machines talking to machines to work out the most efficient method of ‘current interaction’ convince people to buy more stuff.  It would be nice but it sounds kind of utopian to me.

  10. For one thing, machines talking to machines allows much more efficient and fast data crunching. Not sure your exact point, but much of what I discussed here has been done by Google in the three years that have elapsed, +1, G+ social results. Like it or not, social is now layered into search, and yeah, this means advertising will follow.

  11. Now that google is adapting social to searches, lmgtfy will fall apart, you don’t know what any given person will be presented with.  Or perhaps even yourself, as context quickly evolves.

    Since stuff on the web changes so quickly, people want important stuff locally – take Oracle docs, for example, people want mobi on their kindle.  Would that sentence even have made sense 3 years ago?

    So that means the exact opposite of what Berners-Lee had in mind – just like with computers generating more paper, the tubes generate more local storage.  Then it’s all difficult to get as new media chokes the pipes.  Even literally, as medical monitoring devices can’t tell 911 you are choking because of cute kitties making the rounds.

    Then, when things do work (say, some mechanism is employed to give adaptive priority to different messages), things that used to take weeks happen in cyber time.  This has already happened in stock trading, next we’ll see cyber-vultures – some one sets all their bill-pays up, loses job, accounts get ripped in seconds as every payee tries to get what they can.  We’re already seeing worse – people get their credit cards cancelled just because a different credit account got more than half used – stupid risk-assessment software doesn’t understand the lack of data it gets, like the fact that the different account has 0% interest.

    Then things break…

  12. So, a few things.

    Lmgtfy won’t fall apart completely, but it will produce interesting results. Mobi has been around for a while, and I know OTN was talking about it more than 3 years ago, maybe not the Kindle part.

    Verizon and Google have conspired to mess w mobile intertubes, so yeah, those medical devices may need to pay up or else. Otherwise, just bc you don’t like entertainment, doesn’t mean it’s bad.

    I’m not completely disagreeing, but you’re being typically dystopian 🙂

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