Among the announcements at Twitter’s first “Chirp” conference for developers this past April was the launch of a new feature called Annotations. Unlike, say, “promoted tweets” or Twitter Places, Annotations aren’t so much a product launch as a substantial rethinking of the way the service functions on a fundamental level. The changes and extra dimensions it adds to Twitter could have a tremendous impact, not just on the social network and the developers and companies who make use of it, but on the way we interact with the web itself.
The new feature will be one of the first large-scale implementations of something called the “semantic web,” a term coined by World Wide Web Consortium director Sir Tim Berners-Lee. It refers to web technology with a built-in understanding of the relationships between its different elements — that is, everything from web pages to specific pieces of websites and services. Equipped with these kinds of tools, developers and companies can create applications and services that allow different pieces of the web to function together and exchange information, and therefore make services — from stocks to shopping to news — easier to use and more efficient.
An example of the semantic web used by Berners-Lee is the simple act of getting a cup of coffee with a friend. Instead of having to manage multiple different services or applications — calling or emailing the friend, checking a calendar, looking for a coffee shop nearby, checking a bus schedule — building semantic knowledge in would allow all of these different applications to talk to each other. You could simply choose a task in a specific piece of software, such as a calendar, and see dates and times that would work, as well as locations and bus routes automatically laid out for you.
While Annotations won’t make this high of a level of integration possible (at least not right away), the underlying principle is the same: Additional information, attached to an action, adds meaning to the behavior of users and can be interpreted in some way by software. The feature is expected to launch sometime later this year, and will allow developers to add that additional information to a tweet. That might include a keyword, a string of text, a hyperlink, a geographic location or virtually anything else that could be related to a message on the social network. These pieces of “metadata” won’t affect the character count of the original tweet, but will be carried along with it through the network and eventually be decoded, aggregated and filtered by a variety of applications or services (or by Twitter itself).
Twitter’s new feature isn’t the only large-scale experiment implementing the semantic web: Facebook is also rolling out its own version of metadata with its “open graph platform.” This involves an API as well as social plugins developers can add to web pages and services to allow users to “like” the pages they visit by clicking a button. Developers can then use the company’s open graph protocol to add metadata to this behavior, then track and filter that data in a variety of ways. For example, the site could detect that a user’s “like” occurred on a web page devoted to a movie, song or restaurant and track the most popular movies, etc. more easily.
Although Twitter and Facebook have both provided some guidelines for what kinds of activity and metadata they see developers and web sites integrating into their services, both social networks have also said that they will allow companies a substantial amount of leeway in coming up with their own ideas about what data to track or include.
The potential implications of this kind of semantic intelligence in social networks are substantial, because they will change the way we interact and use the web. A few examples include:
Reviews: Sites that involve restaurant, music or movie reviews could include metadata related to what a user is browsing when they post a comment to Twitter from a page, allowing other services to aggregate and filter that information to track popularity or make recommendations.
Stocks: Attaching a simple stock quote symbol to any tweet about a stock or a publicly traded company would allow services and users to track and aggregate information about those stocks, in the same way StockTwits does now.
Coupons: Companies could easily attach special offers to tweets that would be restricted to specific locations or specific times, allowing them to target users directly based on time or location.
Shopping: Metadata would allow sites to provide transaction info (if a user opted in) that would be attached to a tweet posted from a shopping site. This would also make it easy for services to rank and filter purchases, the same way Amazon does with its “people who bought X also bought Y” feature.
Music: Both users and services could track music-related tweets based on metadata involving the artist, genre, track, etc. Companies that want to target users based on a specific preference could then filter and analyze that data.
Games: Using metadata related to a specific social game, developers and companies could allow users to trade messages and play a form of reality game within a social network.
News: Any message that involved a current news story or location could have that information encoded in metadata, allowing users and services to track a developing story or event, as well as the conversation about it.
The impact of both Annotations and Facebook’s open graph protocol could turn out to be larger than either of those services individually: If services and applications that make use of one or both of these new technologies become popular with consumers, and the tools themselves become popular with developers, the semantic web envisioned by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and others could come closer to reality. That could change the way we interact with the web by making the software and services we use smarter and removing some of the friction between us and our social networks — and that will create new business opportunities not just for Twitter and Facebook, but for other smart technology companies as well.