Between Web 2.0 and the Smart Web

By Joe Buhler, Principal, buhlerworks
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The shelves are full of books about new and potentially revolutionary changes in the web that are transforming the global marketplace. Welcome to a new world where top down hierarchies no longer apply or are constantly being undercut and where one-way “push” marketing communication is being replaced by the “pull” of mass collaboration and peer production. Every organization must cope with these new realities in the competitive arena today and come to grips with what these changes mean to the survivability of their business.

In 1999, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, envisioned this as the coming Semantic Web, when he said:

“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, machines talking to machines will handle bureaucracy and our daily lives. The ‘intelligent agents’ people have touted for ages will finally materialize”.

As idealized, the Semantic Web, or Common Sense Web, involves the use of software agents to collect natural language information from disparate sources throughout the web and then put those elements together in various ways for people to use that information more effectively and extract greater meaning from it. In Web 2.0, we have seen both the advent and the proliferation of such agents, as web applications or widgets, as well as with specialized compilations or aggregations called “mashups”.

The actual situation on the web is very different from the ideal that Berners-Lee envisioned, but at this point, it seems reasonable to assume we will get there sooner rather than later. The take-away messages for businesses are:

(1) If you are already using the web, redouble your commitment and plan to invest more of your time and energy to make the web a central element of your business strategy going forward.

(2) If you are not using the web yet or not very much at all, you really must get up on the curve as quickly as possible and make up for lost time as your business is likely at stake.

“The Long Tail” and “Wikinomics” are just two in a growing list of terms – and book titles – that try to explain and interpret what is today given the overall term – web 2.0 – where customers become “prosumers” and “crowd sourcing” or “collective intelligence” are terms thrown out along with “social networking” and “user generated content”.

What to make of it all? Tuning out is not a viable option and if you thought you were falling behind or cannot cope with these rapid developments, well there is news for you – we ain’t seen nothing yet! Nobody has really given a definite and defining label to what is already coming onto the scene. We will probably tire of the numbers game and not call this next phase web 3.0, although that is the term used in a recent New York Times article. Its title “Entrepreneurs see a web guided by common sense” is well suited. The need to make sense out of chaos is the underlying driver. Yes, would it not be great for the future web to seem like common sense — what we the users understand and want the experience online to be? It will probably turn out that way but a lot of the process in getting there will actually be chaotic.

We certainly are not there yet, but it helps to understand where in terms of capabilities and development the web is today. Using the world of telecommunications as an analogy, we are at a similar stage we were when the only tool available was a black rotary dial phone, which only those of us who are closer to retirement than graduation still remember being used at all.

What we will see in the next phase of the web – the next net – is that mining human intelligence will allow a layer of meaning to be built on top of the mass of collective intelligence now being gathered and spread daily. Today, the actions of millions of individuals who not only provide their commentary and opinions on any subjects by using Twitter but also use “widgets” that adorn social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace or YouTube constantly add content to the web that allows ever more detailed data mining which in turn makes the web more relevant. Our interactions with the web help to actually make it better and easier to use. Many of today’s mashups interact with and combine information to provide dynamically generated applications to improve results. These self-directed tools are used for instance in vacation planning, to manage personal schedules or even entire business projects.

As the definition on Wikipedia shows, there is no consensus on how this latest iteration of the web will exactly look like but it is equally clear that further significant improvements will happen. Using the new collaboration and communications capabilities available to everyone, today they will happen faster and with the involvement of the community at large, rather than in a closed development environment.

Web 2.0 is actually, what happened while we were waiting for the semantic web to appear. The more we see the emergence of these evolved tools it becomes obvious that there is a lot of truth in that statement. It is certainly not too far fetched to expect the near future to bring us completely personalized websites that are dynamically tailored to each users interest based on software tools that observe, collect, analyze and then correctly interpret the intelligence gathered from our online behavior.

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