090916 What’s Coming?

On September 16, 2009, in Futures, JohnSumser.com, by John Sumser

What’s Coming

There’s a new idea emerging in the noisy din of forecasts about the web’s future. Almost all of the usual suspects point to the “Semantic Web” as the next logical increment of evolution. Jumping on Tim Berners-Lee‘s original vision, they promise richer access to exactly the thing that you want when you want it.

The Semantic Web will bring structure to the meaningful content of Web pages, creating an environment where software agents roaming from page to page can readily carry out sophisticated tasks for users. Such an agent coming to the clinic’s Web page will know not just that the page has keywords such as “treatment, medicine, physical, therapy” (as might be encoded today) but also that Dr. Hartman works at this clinic on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and that the script takes a date range in yyyy-mm-dd format and returns appointment times. And it will “know” all this without needing artificial intelligence on the scale of 2001′s Hal or Star Wars’s C-3PO. Instead these semantics were encoded into the Web page when the clinic’s office manager (who never took Comp Sci 101) massaged it into shape using off-the-shelf software for writing Semantic Web pages along with resources listed on the Physical Therapy Association’s site. (Scientific American)

In this great future, the web will know what you mean and what you want. It’s an impressive technical objective. Most people are unclear about meaning and desire. Yet, tagging schemes and language standardization are going to make that clearer. At no additional cost, the internet will become omnipotent. All of a sudden, human beings, who are generally not so good a procedures and expense reports, are going to tag and structure their data.

Most forecasts of the future fail because they extend today’s operating metaphors into tomorrow’s ambiguity. There are several innovations in strategic planning that try to avoid the trap. (Scenario planning is one way of trying to avoid building the future as an extension of the present.)

Black Swan theory suggests that the future is always disambiguated (not the same as the present). Nassim Nicholas Taleb (here’s the Charlie Rose interview, and the Long Now Lecture) argues that our world is shaped by events and ideas that are seen as outliers. Black Swans are events and ideas that shift world views and define the differences between generations and epochs.

The predominant view of the Semantic web is just an extension of the way things are. Built as a library of documents, the current web is indexed and managed as if all knowledge were intended to be stored as documents. That metaphor is at the breaking point.

Social media services, like Twitter, Digg, Facebook and a billion others shift the conversation. In social media, information is contained in conversation,  interaction and small increments of status information, not in documents. The most important pieces of information (social context and influence patterns) are contained in the interactions between people. Turning the world into a massive library was an interesting start. mining that library for important insight is necessary work.

The future is not about documents, it’s about people. There is sure to be a huge short term experiment in finding people as if they were documents. Over the long haul, the big money is not there. It’s in a web that focuses on and services people.

The term social media perpetuates the notion that documents (and other forms of communications storage) are at the foundation of things. It’s a metaphor, a way of talking about something that isn’t quite social and isn’t quite media. Current notions of the semantic web take the media metaphor as a literal thing. In other words, it’s just more of the same.

The truth is that it is not like anything we’ve seen before.

The Web at a New Crossroads is an informative article that wrestles with the metaphor as architecture problem. It’s an indicator of a better direction. The authors are still trying to break out of the hard constraints imposed by the document metaphor.

In the beginning, the web was a place. You ‘went’ to a website. You were a visitor.

Then the web became a series of annotations on those page. Publishing became personal and began to actively incorporate the ideas of others. The reality was annotation, the metaphor shifted to conversation.

Today, the metaphor is breaking, Google isn’t reporting facebook status or tweets. The vast majority of web interaction is slipping below the waterline while we try to find a new metaphor. It won’t be an extension of documents, translation or meaning.

 
  • Heather Bussing

    Conversation threads (like Facebook status posts and comments), strings (like blog posts and more substantive comments), and ropes like forum discussions that move in numerous directions at once and contain multi-media) are not easily organized or structured. While search engines get better at making connections and sorting massive quantities of data, they are still quite literal.

    People and their conversations are not. Human communication involves nuance, subtleties and dual meanings that are not search-able. Emoticons are our fun, but feeble, attempt to integrate expression and feeling into written conversations.

    Search engines and software will never be able to accurately capture the true context and meanings of conversations, nor follow the often illogical leaps in topic and thought.

    This is a problem lawyers have had since the dawn of written transcripts. The written conversation never accurately captures the sense of the in-person event. It is also why we have a constitutional right to confront our accusers in person– body language usually says far more than words.

    So while a semantic web will be able to show deeper connections in massive layers of information, a logic based system will never be able to truly capture the layers of meaning in human conversation.

  • http://jobshouts.com Mike Quale

    Interesting read John. I raised an eyebrow at your comment “There is sure to be a huge short term experiment in finding people as if they were documents”. Our development efforts are focused on finding search terms that are career and employment centric.

    The search technology utilizes search strings appearing on multiple social networks and people directories. It is designed to help employers or recruiters find specific talent quickly.

    I don’t think Heather is completely in tune with what you are saying. The web in my lifetime; will never be able to mimic human interaction. However through semantic use of the web we will indeed see some very amazing services brought into fruition.

  • http://www.johnsumser.com John Sumser

    Mike, there’s a nuance you might be missing. A map of the relationships between people with indications of the volume of information flow and some idea of the content would be a better tool for finding the right candidates quickly (in at least some cases). Right now, search strings are meaningless in the face of a flow of tweets or status reports or a list of friends.

    There are new patterns to be found that are going to shift the way we thnk about what’s information and what’s not.

    I agree that it’s not the reinvention of human behavior. But, automating short term sourcing problems isn’t the long game either.

  • http://www.hrmdirect.com/hrm3/blog/ Colin Kingsbury

    IBM (I think) did some interesting research on this some years ago where the drew graphs based on the flow of email between people in a company. The basic idea was that the content and flow patterns of email sometimes told you a lot more about relationships than titles and org charts did. The challenge with applying this in practical terms is that once people know a certain metric is being watched, they optimize for it, and drain it of value. Like Bagehot said of the British monarchy, once you let the sun shine on it, the magic disappears.

    As for the future of documents, I am not inclined to be too heavily against them. I cut my teeth in the IT business in document and structured content management, and we had a strong semantic technology group including a number of guys centrally involved in SGML, Topic Maps, and RDF. Curiously, Scandinavia seems to be something of a hotbed for this stuff.

    Anyway, as miserable as documents can be to work with, especially when they get very large and complex in structure (such as service manuals for aircraft), when you start breaking them up into their constituent parts, you also discover how many useful “features” they provide. You start out thinking of the document as nothing but a build order, but over time you come to see that it picks up so much along the way that it becomes useful to treat it as a first-order entity.

  • http://thehumanracehorses.com Michael VanDervort

    And therein lies the magic:

    “The most important pieces of information (social context and influence patterns) are contained in the interactions between people. Turning the world into a massive library was an interesting start. mining that library for important insight is necessary work.

    The future is not about documents, it’s about people. There is sure to be a huge short term experiment in finding people as if they were documents. Over the long haul, the big money is not there. It’s in a web that focuses on and services people.”

  • http://jobshouts.com Mike Quale

    I totally agree with the part about tweets and status updates. They are not valuable search commodities for talent sourcing. We specifically exclude statuses or updates from our search criteria. Instead focusing on Resumes, BIO’s and profile content.

    The same sourcing techniques that Shally Steckrl teaches can be automated into a time saving tool. The was a lot of talk about automated search at ERE this year. We are not the only ones doing this.

    ‘Twitter Bio’s, People Directories, LinkedIn or even MySpace profiles often contain relevant skill sets that employers may be looking for. There is also relationship information with people that they are connected with. Making use of that information is what sourcing is about. Using tools to speed up the process means time for other things like networking.

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