F8, Chirp and the increasing importance of the semantic web

As far as tech conferences and announcements go, April 2010 has certainly been one interesting month to put it mildly.

First came Chirp, the first “official” Twitter Developer Conference (Apr 14-15, San Francisco) — the keynotes were streamed live and recordings can still be viewed. Aside from some interesting stats, the notable announcements were support for “Points of Interest” (going from machine-friendly location coordinates to user-friendly ‘places’ with semantic utility), “User Streams” (supporting real-time push updates to clients without rate limiting), “@anywhere” (a platform for integrating Twitter data directly into a website’s content pages) and “Annotations” (the ability to attached structured meta-data to a tweet).

Of these, the idea of annotations has captured the most buzz — not only because it now allows for additional context to be attached without impacting the 140-character limit, but also because it can be used by end-applications to add or derive richer semantic value from otherwise terse content. A number of ideas have already been proposed for the use of such annotations — and the list will only grow longer once the feature is released for public and developer consumption. (Anticipated availability = end of 2nd Quarter 2010)

And today, Facebook upped the ante by unveiling its new features and capabilities at the Facebook F8 Developer Conference. As with Chirp, the keynotes were streamed live and archived — but so were all the sessions and backstage conversations. I strongly recommend that readers take time to check out at least Mark Zuckerberg’s Keynote and the “New Tools” session. While F8 had many announcements, the game-changer that debuted today was their “Open Graph” vision which allows any arbitrary web page to be integrated seamlessly into a user’s social graph.

In essence, with Open Graph, any website can be represented as a discrete object in the graph, and can be “connected to” and “interacted with” by the user — and be reasoned upon or exploited by Facebook applications. The key to Open Graph is the Open Graph Protocol specification which describes structured data (<meta> tags) that should be added to a website (page source) in order to enable the Facebook platform to import it as a graph object. Required tags include title, type (similar to ‘category’), url (translates into unique id for object) and image (to represent object in graph). In particular, the list of specified types underscores the huge impact this structured data can have — by simply implementing the Open Graph protocol, pages can not only get personalized (to reflect the Facebook user who interacted with them) but are now automatically indexed and surfaced in any related user collection or query against that type (category).

If the Open Graph Protocol allows the outside world to be imported seamlessly into the Facebook ecosystem, then the new “Social Plugins” feature allows Facebook data to be exported into the outside world for personalized web-views. With social plugins, a Facebook user can browse the web and have every page “framed” with comments or content from his social graph as pertains to that page. There’s a lot more to be learnt about this of course — and as the days pass, we should begin to see the rollout of experiences that incorporate these features in new ways.

However, if we step back from both Chirp and F8, two similarities emerge that are both representative of the strong paradigm shift that is the social semantic web:

1. From destination to decentralization. Both Twitter and Facebook started off as destination sites (all value locked into the portal and exposed to applications) but are moving towards decentralized usage with Twitter @anywhere and FB social plugins.

2. Structured data emergence.  Twitter with its annotations feature, and Facebook with its OpenGraph protocol, are both opening up their platforms to embrace richer metadata. With the extensive reach of both platforms (in users and applications), this could be the tipping point for more ubiquitous support for the semantic web.

Facebook “Like” buttons using the OpenGraph protocol are already beginning to proliferate. In the interests of try-then-talk, here is a link to the Facebook page that describes how to add a Like (or Recommend) button to any site, or integrate other FB social plugins. A look at the options used to auto-generate the HTML (or FBML) code snippet for the button hints at the real potential for expansion of this idea to all other kinds of social interactions from the hosting webpage.


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