Web X.0 and counting

[ I originally published this post on the Headshift blog in 2009. ]

This week I attended the Web 3.0 Conference in New York thanks to a ticket I won from Centernetworks.

Even though I work in fields that are named Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, Government 2.0 and what not, it is always good to know where development goes. Besides, at university I took classes in computer linguistic, natural language processing and retrieval, intelligent computer agents. While I was never capable of diving into the technical matters, I was always very excited by the opportunities that those technologies would bring us one day. Looking for example at Wolfram|Alpha we are starting to get a taste of what machines will be capable of doing in the future.

So, ignore the nomenclature of Web X.0 and imagine the Web as an ever evolving ecosystem, where players appear, change roles and vanish. In the mid and end 90s people were merely consumers of content that was thrown at them by media outlets and corporates. With the advent of social tools people changed roles and became content producers. Over the past seven years a massive amount of content has been created and is now dispersed around the Web. For example, people share reviews of books and movies on Facebook but that information is not available when they buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Nobles. People rate restaurants etc. on Yelp but that information is not at people’s fingertips when they accesse a restaurant’s website. Journalists produce content and have to manually link to resources on the Web. Thus, we have massive piles of data, but most of it is disconnected, tucked away in various services and applications that don’t talk to each other.

And so I think Thomas Tague, Calais Initiative Lead from Thomson Reuters, and keynote speaker at Web 3.0 sums it up quite nicely by saying that the next development will be ‘cleaning up the mess we made and harnessing the value we created with Web 2.0′. Of course, this era of social computing (aka Web 2.0)  will not cease to exist with the advent of new technologies, but it will be enhanced it in quite dramatic ways. Greg Boutin, founder of Growthroute Ventures, has written a great 3-part series of posts about new and exciting developments of the Web. He defines it as “the Web of Openness. A web that breaks the old siloes, links everyone everything everywhere, and makes the whole thing potentially smarter.”

Theory is great but what about practical examples? How can these technologies help to solve real-world business problems? Thomas Tague hit exactly on that point in his keynote. Technologists go nowhere if they don’t address business problems. Especially during these difficult economic times, businesses are forced to cut costs, increase revenue and competitiveness. He used the publishing industry as an example, which he sees as a zero-sum game and consequently businesses that adopt new (semantic) technologies can gain a decisive first-mover advantage. For example, the editorial workflow can be considerably reduced if the editor is automatically suggested links to bits & pieces mentioned in the text. Zemanta is a great example for providing that kind of technology. Another would be Apture, which allows editors to embed content from around the web and keep readers on their own website rather than sending them to Wikipedia, Flickr etc. Easily embedding 3rd party content will not only reduce time and cost but will also enhance the presented content and can therefore help to attract and keep audience. Another development is auatomatically enriching data with semantic metadata to improve findability and linking (e.g. Open Calais). Since the Web has become a platform we have come to understand that we need to make it dead simple to let other people use and interact with our content no matter where and when.

Other examples? In the beginning I mentioned that it is not possible to see reviews of a book that your network shared with you on Facebook at the point of purchase, e.g. Amazon. That’s not entirely true, because Adaptive Blue offers a browser plugin called ‘Glue’ which achieves exactly that. In this case every book is an object with a uniqe identifier and can therefore be querried from every corner of the Web. In the future you can imagine, that for example advertisers and brands can much better link the mentioning of a product by someone to the purchase of it by someone else leveraging the social graph. If you are in NYC on June 4, you should check out the next Semantic Web Meetup which looks at Semantic Advertising.

Another example: Recently, Google introduced Rich Snippets. It enhances the summary text of the results after a user performed a search. If the users searches for a specific restaurant Rich Snippets will show the restaurant on a map, reviews from other users etc.

Eventually the data that we have been creating around the web for the past years will come together and enhance our experience in ways we can’t even imagine yet. Mozilla calls it ‘the contextual web’ and I think it’s a great name. Objects and people will have more context and thus more value. There will be new possibilities, new business models and, yes, losers. I should dig out my old study notes, because the things that seemed to me science-fiction a couple of years ago, could become reality sooner rather than later.

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