As the big data meme gets louder, the semantic web quietly evolves

This post started off as ripples in the tech marketing space-time continuum around the big data meme. Oo big data. Wasn’t it a big deal in ’09?

Apparently it’s even more of a big deal now. According to a recent tech post, big data will be a $50 billion market in 5 years.  Great. But short of identifying big data as a key trend, what practical value could this have for marketers?

Well, in the realm of CRM and “Customer Intelligence” it’s all the rage. Another post I caught last week through a tweet from @Liberationtech examines whether or not big data is in fact the next big deal.

While that post focuses largely on the usefulness of big data in trend analysis and application to predictive modelling etc., it still left me wondering why I should care.

So I turned my thoughts from volume to substance: what makes up big data? And how are some of the key characteristics of these large data sets being affected as the web evolves exponentially at a rapid rate?

Intelligent content
The web, and all the data that resides and moves within its framework, is clearly massive. But how intelligent has it become?  In other words, what is the current state of the semantic web?

The concept of the Semantic Network Model was coined in the early sixties by a cognitive scientist.., linguist..,and a form to represent semantically structured knowledge…” – Wikipedia

If big data is the macro view of digital information’s infrastructure evolution, then I see the semantic web as either a subset or a significant instance of all that immensity.

As the known, collective data in the world approaches the zettabyte unit,  I can’t help thinking that somehow, certain day-to-day applications must be influenced or affected by the scaling that’s happening to the digital infrastructure, along with the exponential rise of various data sets online, including social graphs, that are contributing to what I would now assume as a more sophisticated semantic structure.

The quest for ubiquity
Recent correspondence with Briox co-founder, Itamar Rogel,  got me further inspired to ask his opinion on how content publishers and news aggregators are responding to the designs of the semantic web. Are we indeed seeing mass alignment of development approaches as a result of increased awareness of the semantic framework?

It depends how you’d define “mass alignment” with respect to the semantic web, I guess. If I’m leaving out the obvious stuff like some aggregators sourcing information from open semantic repositories (i.e. Freebase) to do their job, and if we’re talking about true forms of semantic web—where we’ll see deployment of interconnected semantic information on a massive scale by publishers—it will need to be a gradual, dual-headed process (which you could claim is already underway): The channels [readers, aggregators, social apps…] will need to offer truly enticing user benefits for content that is annotated with semantic information, with great UX—and the publishers, if incentivized via these advanced interactions that are enabled by semantic data, will in turn respond with including more semantic info in their online media.

Of course, some publishers will do this before others— indeed, some have already been doing it for a long time now—just because they like to get ahead 🙂

The gradual, dual-headed process makes sense. But has the semantic web advanced in past 5 or 6 years, say since Twitter went live or blogging broke into the scene?

It certainly did, although not as strongly as some have expected it would. This is because the trends in the web in recent years have been (and still are) towards half-closed ecosystems, whether we like it or not. I.e., you have an API for Facebook, but you can’t freely interconnect with the semantic data that it contains. Other social networks and mobile platforms are similar in this, to different extents.

As a concrete example, we’ve seen deployments of FOAF (a semantic web ontology for social networks, loosely speaking) in blogging platforms and elsewhere, yet how much impact has it had compared to the social networks everyone knows and uses?

Still, I believe that with time, off-the-shelf publishing services/backends (i.e. WordPress) will provide better and better support for integrated publishing of semantic info – and it will become ubiquitous. Currently, we’re still at a stage where you see only some of the publishers and aggregators truly leveraging these technologies… But you can definitely claim that there’s ongoing adoption of semantic web technologies. Personally I feel there still needs to be a “killer app” for this to truly gain momentum on a wide scale (and not just on vertical sites or for relatively fringe uses).

The future of information consumption
A killer app, eh? Some  believe that mobile sites not apps are the key content portals. Do you think one is more influential to a user than the other?

Well, I mean app in the generic sense. Whether it’s a manifested as a mobile site or a native app per se is not really important. The question is, will it actually provide users with value and usefulness that would make the necessary effort in supporting it – both technically and content-wise – worthwhile? This requires advances in neighbouring issues and aspects as well. For instance, Apple’s Siri (and similar software elsewhere) can be greatly extended in usefulness and scope if sufficient semantic web infrastructure and content are available.”

Being a fan of his app, Riversip, I asked Itamar’s thoughts on news aggregration and how it will evolve over the long-term. How would one characterize the evolution of existing UX models as they impact both user and developer?

That’s a great question. I think a few significant trends would converge onto indeed creating a richer experience for users. One of them is the process of app-ization – online experience would become more tailored to the user’s context, specific needs and task at hand. To be clear, this is orthogonal to whether the specific implementation would be native-app-based or not, which is another issue. What matters is the app-based user experience that users have become accustomed to, that they evidently like, and that – quite importantly – has allowed the creation of a viable economic model for developers. So users would just start having richer and richer abilities to interact, engage and perform tasks online.

Another process is multi-channeling: Whereas once the website and its content were almost synonymous, nowadays you consume the same content in many different channels, and expect to get different experience: In your mobile device, as a social network app, on your tablet and soon in your TV and car – you essentially experience the same content in different ways. This decoupling of content from the way it is experienced has deep-running implications for publishers, developers and users.

Note how each channel nowadays wants developers to create apps for it: iOS and Facebook (and others) in this sense are all channels pushing developers to create apps for them, so they can have better monetization footprint.content in different ways. This decoupling of content from the way it is experienced has deep-running implications for publishers, developers and users.

Would we see dramatic shift in user behaviour? Are we in fact going to see a clear pattern that identifies content dissemination and consumption as typifying Web 3.0?

Regarding apps and channels, sure – this is a major trend we’re all feeling and will feel even stronger in coming years.

Regarding the semantic web per se, I’m not sure if from a user’s standpoint, it would necessarily feel like a revolution anytime soon. Sure, you’ll be getting richer and richer abilities available to you at your palm, but it does seem like a natural vector of progress, doesn’t it? It can thus be claimed that this ‘Web 3.0’ shift – if indeed that is what you mean here – would be less “immediately visible” than Web 2.0 for instance. I mean, Siri can already answer quite a few semantic queries. Take that and other apps, given increasing ubiquity of the semantic web, you’ll get better and more powerful such abilities. But would users experience it as revolutionary? I’m not sure.

What about you? What do you think? Are you star struck by big data and don’t know if you should care? Do you *get* why the semantic web is so key and yet so not meme-friendly? Haha.

About Itamar Rogel
Itamar Rogel (@itamarro) is a co-founder of Briox – the developer of Riversip, an algo-social editing platform. Riversip powers a series of news applications that help people stay posted on  news, at their own pace. More info can be found at

Useful posts on the Semantic Web

NOTE: This is not a sponsored post. Itamar and I are equally interested in advancing discussions surrounding the above subject. I am privileged to share Itamar’s thoughts and thankful for his time and contribution.
Sources of Images in descending order:

2 thoughts on “As the big data meme gets louder, the semantic web quietly evolves

  1. Autom,
    There are many important talking points here and I thank you for advancing the discussion.
    While it isn’t my intention to overlook any of them by singling out a few, I will focus on the ones that resonated most with me.
    First, on the topic of the semantic Web, big data has been most successfully leveraged as contextualized social signals. The most inefficient are processes starved or absent of the requisite human interaction to parse and operationalize actionable analysis. 
    The second is this notion of multi-channeled consumption enriching or allowing us a varied experience.  The disconnect here is the emphasis each social platform places on evolving identities.
    For example, some platforms will prompt you upon login to complete lacking data points in your profile, and the benefit claims are that it will enrich your UX.
    I think the trick for social platforms moving forward is to create a utility that you cannot do without, and which will allow users to voluntarily exchange personal information without the privacy hold-backs. 
    I think the next big step towards overcoming privacy hold-backs will be driven by mobile (and much of this is already underway), because we have authentication and validation from a phone number that links to a real persons name and address. 
    Furthermore, platforms may decide to do away with the awkwardness of “asking” and standardize the privacy handshake by compiling, organizing and contextualizing shares via metadata encoded with each online share.
    The big race will be centralizing these two big data subsets in a way that is cohesive and necessary for a directional evolution headed towards a path that is meaningful and enabling rather than cumbersome and concerning.

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