Musings on Business and Tech

Category — social networking

The Next Phase is Not Web 3.0

O’Reilly Media’s Web 2.0 Summit, which took place over the last few days in San Francisco, got me thinking, why is the web still only in version 2.0?

Tim O’Reilly himself coined the phrase Web 2.0 back in 2004 for his first conference of the same name. It was defined by an evolution in front end technologies like AJAX and bubble letters, back-end technologies like web services and RSS feeds, and business models like crowdsourcing and software as a service.

So given that we’re 6 years in to Web 2.0, when will we get to Web 3.0? The answer is never. No one will ever start calling it Web 3.0. For one thing, it’s not catchy. Web 2.0 has a certain ring to it that Web 3.0 doesn’t. Also, I think it will be difficult for people to come to a consensus on when technologies have evolved enough to move to a new version number. Web 2.0 was coined by a single person. Web 3.0 would have to be more organic. We much more likely to describe future “versions” of the web in descriptive phrases rather than numbers.

Tim Berners-Lee has always been against this nomenclature anyway. His alternative to “Web 2.0″ was the “Read/Write Web,” because of the way in which users became empowered to contribute en masse to the data on the internet. And in 2006, when asked what Web 3.0 would be, he said that a component of it would be “The Semantic Web,” or “a web of data that can be processed directly and indirectly by machines.” In other words, a web in which the machines can glean meaning from the data, in addition to simply manipulating it.

But I would argue that we are already at the next evolution of the web, and yet it’s not about semantics. It’s about context. This new phase of the web has largely been catalyzed by two breakthroughs: advances in the power and reach of mobile computing, as well as what Mark Zuckerberg calls “the social graph.” Both of these lend not meaning but context to data, and that is a very powerful thing.

Mobile devices can contextualize data around locations, photos, video, and audio (among other things). And of course the social graph connects data to people. The “Internet of Things,” as it continues to grow, will increasingly connect data to objects (shall we call it the “object graph?”). Although context is a step in the direction of semantics, we are still a ways away from getting machines to the point where they can interpret meaning from this data.

Indeed the “web” isn’t even about machines anymore. What was once a network of machines connected by wires is now a network of people, places and things connected by context. There is a new network growing atop the old.

Perhaps the semantic web will come in version 4.0 (although we still won’t call it that). But I think the best characterization of the most recent evolution of the web is the “Contextual Web” (I am not the first to call it such). Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, the iPhone, Android, and many other prominent technologies can fall under this term, and I think it best describes the current proliferation of mobile and social technology that is spawning so many new and interesting businesses.

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November 18, 2010   2 Comments

Quora Does What Every Website Wants To Do: Engage Users

I’ve been reading about for some time now, but a few weeks ago I finally got an invite to participate in their closed beta.

For those who don’t know, Quora is a Q&A site with some social networking functionality built in to make it like Facebook or Twitter, but with much richer content. You can post and answer questions, vote responses up and down and comment on them, and follow a range of different topics, questions and people.

But the one thing Quora does exceedingly well is engage its users. I find myself wanting to visit the site every day. There are very few sites I do in fact visit every day, so when a new one comes up on my radar, it’s worth thinking about a little more deeply. How does Quora keep me coming back?

First, they give me things to do when I get to the site. The first page I see when I log in is my “feed,” essentially a list of questions and recent answers from the people and topics I’m following. The first thing I always do then is scan my feed and see if any interesting questions or answers have come up recently. If so, I click on them, read and vote on the responses, and consider whether I want to answer the question.

Another activity they ask of me is to classify unanswered questions. If someone enters a question without any topics, it shows up on my home page as an “Unorganized Question.” If I click on it I can then easily add topics to the question, which benefits the community as a whole without being too bothersome for me to do.

Lastly, Quora has perfected the art of email notifications. Whereas Facebook sends me an email for every dumb little thing that needs my attention, Quora, as far as I can tell, only sends me emails in a two specific circumstances:

  • Someone posts an answer to a question I am following (you can follow any question you see on the site by clicking the “Follow” link, unless you asked the question, in which case you follow it by default)
  • Someone sends you a private message

This means that the email load coming from Quora is low enough to keep it unobtrusive, but the emails themselves are of high enough value that I welcome them and will likely click on the links in them to come back to the site.

User engagement is the “holy grail” of making websites profitable, and Quora has found it. It’s all about giving the users activities to accomplish when they come to the site, as well as encouraging them to come back via infrequent but high value email notifications. If you’d like an invite so you can check this out for your self, let me know by tweeting me @jamieforrest.

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June 21, 2010   2 Comments

My (Very Brief) Facebook Hiatus

With all the privacy missteps that Facebook has taken of late, I decided to deactivate my account just to see what it would be like. I took this step knowing full well that Facebook lets you reactivate your account as if you never left, simply by logging in again. (Is this a feature or another indication that Facebook is doing whatever it can to hold onto your data?)

Within just a few hours after I deactivated, an old friend from high school emailed me that he’d just uploaded lots of pictures from our teenage years and was sad that he couldn’t tag me on them. Another friend then saw these pictures, also noticed I’d gone missing, and proceed to start a public Facebook group called “Jamie quit Facebook??? WTF, that sucks!!! BOO!”

Over the course of the evening, 10 people joined the group and left various comments like, “Quitters never win,” “waah, i want pwivacy!,” and “It’s not like he didn’t give us all plenty of warning and reasons.” I enjoyed watching this and relishing in the irony that I could view this completely public page even though my account wasn’t active.

Several days later when I reactivated my account, I was glad to see that (a) all of the information in my profile had been wiped clean; (b) my friends list was still intact; and (c) all of my privacy settings were unchanged.

Some people would think that (a) would be an inconvenience but I welcomed it, because in reinstating my Facebook account I have come back with a new attitude. Instead of seeing Facebook as a protected space where I can share semi-private information with a self-selected group of friends, I now see it more like Twitter (and more like the Internet as a whole): a completely public space where you need to be careful about what you do and say and actively monitor and manage what others do and say about you.

Ultimately I reactivated because I need to. I work in technology and I have to keep abreast of what’s going on in that space. Facebook also drives a good amount of traffic to this blog, which I was sad to see disappear. Right here, right now, Facebook is just too powerful a force to opt-out of.

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May 12, 2010   1 Comment

Facebook Will Fail in Their Quest for World Domination

A great observation from Albert Wenger of Union Square Ventures on why Facebook’s goal to be the “one [social] graph to rule them all” will fail:

Hats off to Mark Zuckerberg and the entire team at Facebook.  They are managing that most impressive feat of innovating at scale.  They are also incredibly ambitious in what they want to accomplish.  The goal seems nothing short of one identity and one graph to “rule them all.”  With over 400 million users worldwide and a sign on system that is being widely adopted this ambition doesn’t seem crazy…

But I see at least one flaw with this plan for domination.  I simply don’t believe that there is a single social graph that makes sense.  I may very well follow someone’s bookmarks on that I don’t want to have any other relationship with.  Or take the group of people that I feel comfortable sharing my foursquare checkins with — these are all people I trust and would enjoy if they showed up right there and then.  That group in turn is different from the people I work with on Google docs for various projects which is why I would be nervous about using the Microsoft docs connected to Facebook.  Trying to shoe-horn all of these into a single graph is unlikely to work well.

via Facebook and the Net – Continuations.

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April 23, 2010   No Comments

Facebook Passes Google. So What?

On Monday Hitwise announced that “for the week ending March 13, 2010, [Facebook] surpassed Google in the US to become the most visited website for the week.”

This is certainly big news, but not as big as you’d think from reading the tech blogs. Some are saying that this is the triumph of the social web, the turning point at which more people began using the web for interaction rather than inquiry.

I say bollocks. The internet has always been about both social networking and search (and the union of the two). Ever since the days of bulletin boards and IRC, people have been doing some form of “social networking” on the internet. It certainly wasn’t mainstream back then, and I’ll grant you that Facebook is a lot more compelling of an application than IRC, but this isn’t a turning point as much as an equilibrium.

It’s also not a story about the decline of Google. People will always need a way to find things on the web, and although Bing is a worthy competitor in that arena, the game is still Google’s to lose.

Via Hitwise Intelligence – Heather Dougherty – North America.

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March 18, 2010   No Comments