The problem with the semantic web: Semantics! The solution: foldier!

On November 19, VLAB, the MIT/Stanford venture lab, held a panel discussion on what was categorized as a Web 3.0 concept:  the semantic web.  It was excellent.  Thought provoking.  And between the audience and the panelists, the conversation could have lasted well into the evening.  [For Silicon Valley and nearby, this is a strong series on where technology, startups and the market intersect.  Sign up.]

The discussion was perfectly timed.  We’ve had a great deal of talk around here about the semantic web

It’s actually a new-century successor to the artificial intelligence topic that fascinated so many business and technology types in the 80s.  Nearly everyone on the panel agreed that the big difference between the semantic web and artificial intelligence — hence the Web 3.0 classification, I guess — is the impact of the Internet-as-a-platform on both the gathering and morphing of collective intelligence.

The scientists behind "the semantic web" moniker clearly value marketing.  To avoid putting people off with "artificial intelligence," they’ve decided to build interest in the topic by attaching themselves to social networking and online products and services the public is beginning to demand.

Also, to succeed, the scientists need good, old-fashioned traffic.  Because they need to gather the intelligence of the masses and track how they share content and change it.  Because the scientists must be able to manipulate the underlying data if they want to create a huge base of knowledge, or intelligence.  Since the Internet has opened a comprehensive, infinite number of knowledge exchanges, it is the perfect place to chase and capture content.  Today’s scientists know that the Internet is the promised land of intelligence.

Somebody has advised some of the semantic networks to adopt the
behavior and use patterns of Facebook and the like.  Employing marketing tactics targeted to the masses would be fine, except that when the masses get there, they find a serious science project suited — by design and interface — to what I call "high knowledge holders."

I’m actually pleased about this, because I’m working with a company that really does all the stuff the semantic networks understand people want.  And we do it in an accessible way.

Yes, we have a significant point of "competitive" differentiation.  But before I go there, I want to say first that the semantic thing is terrific for all of us, so I’ll catch a ride on their coattails any time.  The semantic scientists deserve praise, support and a lot of attention.  And we’re getting closer to clarity on the whole subject.  [Read this post by Richard McManus, linking to an article by Tim Berners-Lee.]

Eventually, our startup — foldier — will incorporate intelligent, or semantic web, technology.  But first, we’re focused on people and content.  It’s where we believe all of this intelligence, artificial or not, begins.  With people and what they’re reading and doing on the Internet.

For people to gain supreme command over their digital content, whether it’s on their own computers or all over the Web, we have to get in the habit of reaching beyond email programs, instant messaging and social networks to communicate … of using search to use and organize our own data … of thinking of the Internet as a distinctly separate entity.  To gain digital control, we have to integrate our digital actions and sources.  This requires sophisticated technology, yet you can’t lose sight of why you’re doing it:  for private individuals to use among themselves.  This has been foldier’s balancing act.

When the semantic web buzz heated up over the past few months, I would read what the semantics sites said they would do for people and shudder.  We had been keeping a fairly low profile at foldier as our programming team massaged the code, but we had come up with a description for what we’re doing.  Search.  Share.  Relate.  The semantics folks were using similar language.  Plus, they do have dough-re-mi.  That means sponsorships of high-visibility conferences and the like.  Lots of attention.

Since I’m big on differentiation, I began to dig underneath everyone’s market positioning to find what we are doing differently.  Here’s what I found. 

There is some wonderful technology in the wonderful world of semantics, but when you really read what some of the semantic scientists are saying, and when you see demos of their networks, there is a bit of a disconnect between the message and the functionality. 

The scientists are already aiming at the creation of a database that stores our collective intelligence.  They’re way beyond searching, sharing and relating one-on-one.  Note:  this is NOT deception on their part.  It’s semantics!

It may be that the marketing folks throw the messages at the scientists and since they sound good, the messages stick.  Or, the scientists really want their technology to do this stuff — but on the way to building that collective intelligence.

Foldier came from the opposite direction.  It was created purely to enable the founder, and now those of us in the company and our beta users, to search, collect [aggregate], organize and share our content — our digital stuff.  Our revenue model:  a new kind of advertising network.  Right now, though, we want to attract people to foldier so we can see how it works, make it better and entice investors who see that we have something here to offer to people and the advertisers that want to reach them.

We have a blog over at foldier, too.  We’re writing about the many aspects of personal digital content — and showing folks how they can use foldier, too.  I also have a guest essay on FoundRead.  More coming there, too.

The great thing is, foldier is pretty much what you make it.  How you use it.  Some people focus on sharing, others on aggregating and others on searching and organizing their content.  The latter is going to be my favorite, I think. 

On foldier, you can tag your items and never file them.  When you go back later to find an item, you just search by a tag or even just a word that’s in the item. 

For me, no more trying to remember which folder has that article on semantics in it.  Just search for semantics and find all the ways it’s being used this week!

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