Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Web 3.0?

As we all knew would eventually happen, people are starting to get tired of Facebook. Remember all the myriad people I wrote about, who kept inviting me to join—along with the select few who really pestered me to join? So that we could all “keep in touch”? Well, a good half of those people have told me that they’re now bored with Facebook, and it sounds to me like it’s just a matter of time before they’ll be deleting their accounts. (It’s already too late, of course; “they” already have your information. Suckers.) Even if they don’t delete their accounts, they’re using the site less and less, and it won’t be long before they’re not using it at all. So much for keeping in touch, right?

This would be a great time for me to say “I told you so”, except that

  1. When I predicted that people would get bored of Facebook, and stop using it, it’s not like I was being particularly brilliant or anything. Anyone I mentioned that too instantly agreed with me, because that’s what they all assumed would happen too.
  2. There really won’t be much time to dance on Facebook’s grave, because just when people are deleting their accounts in droves, there will be something else that people will start pestering me to join.
So I won’t bother with an “I told you so” post.

People keep talking about something they call “Web 2.0”, which is a nebulous term which seems to refer to all of the social networking sites (like Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, etc.), and other collaborative software built on web technologies. See the Wikipedia article for a long discussion on Web 2.0; my favourite quote from that article is near the beginning:

Some technology experts, notably Tim Berners-Lee, have questioned whether one can use the term in a meaningful way, since many of the technology components of "Web 2.0" have existed since the early days of the Web.

My prediction—which may seem a bit too “Big Brother”, but hear me out—is that there will be a Web 3.0, which takes this to the next logical step. (They probably won’t call it “Web 3.0” of course; somebody will come up with a new term.) Let me explain:

The thing that all of these “social networking” sites have in common is that you can link up with other “friends”, so that you don’t lose touch. You can put in as much or as little information about yourself as you want, and so can they, and then you put each other in your “friends lists”, or your “address books”, or whatever they’re called on a particular service, and the idea is that you won’t lose touch with each other. But the drawback is that you all have to sign up for the service. If I sign up for MySpace, and you sign up for Facebook, then we’re out of luck. I can’t be in your “friend list” unless I also sign up for Facebook.

But soon, technologies for data amalgamation will be good enough that they’ll be able to set up a service in which people in your “address book” don’t have to sign up, or be part of the site. If you want to add me to your “address book” on that service, just give it as much information as you have about me, and it will put together a profile about me, based on what it can find.

Picture it: You sign up for the Web3Friends site, and decide that you want to add me to your “address book”. You give it as much information as you have—my name, maybe the town where I was born, any online names you know that I’ve used in the past—and it goes out and starts looking for information. It’ll check it’s own list of users first, of course, to see if I have an account, and then, if I don’t, it’ll start culling the web: “Has someone named ‘sernaferna’ ever signed up for MySpace? Nope. How about Facebook? Nope. How about Blogger? Yep, he’s got some blogs there; I’ll add his blog feeds to the profile. How about Flickr? Yep, he’s got photos there; I’ll add his recent photos to his profile. YouTube? Yep; I’ll put a link to his YouTube videos in his profile. Now, let’s see what I can find on Google… Oh look, he’s written a book! I’ll add that, too.”

You could quite conceivably end up with a profile page about me that shows my recent pictures on Flickr, my latest posts from my blog(s), and even a specialized section on books I’ve contributed to, without ever having to ask. You want to “keep in touch”? You don’t need my permission! Just go to the profile page that you created for me, and you’ll keep up to date on all of my latest blog posts, or see my new photos, as they appear. You might even be able to send me messages, based on any instant messaging services I happen to use, and of course you’d be able to send me an email.

When that starts to happen, social networking sites will probably start to offer you privacy options, like whether you’ll allow them to share your information with these “data amalgamation” services, so if you’ve signed up for MySpace, and someone is trying to set up this type of profile about you, maybe they wouldn’t get your MySpace information. Or, if it’s really slick, maybe you would be asked for permission, first, and when you give it, that information would magically start showing up in the profile they built for you.

This type of service is not actually that much of a leap forward, in terms of the technologies, from what we have now. (Remember, if you’re on Facebook, that they are already making it quite clear: They will share your information. You agreed to it, when you signed up, and they can do whatever they want with that information.) Making the data from the social networking sites available in this fashion would be extremely easy, technologically speaking. A very simple web service could be built to do it—in fact, someone would probably create a standard interface for such web services, so that all of the social networking sites could implement it.

So, again, maybe some of this seems too “Big Brother”-ish, or too conspiracy theory-ish. And there will be some kinks to work out; for example, can you really be sure that anyone who uses the name “sernaferna” online is actully me? Once you start to build a profile about me, you’ll probably have to sift through the information, and tell the service “I think this is him, but I think this is someone else, and I’m not sure about this”—and, of course, you’ll probably make some mistakes, too. And what if you find multiple email addresses for someone; will you list them all, or pick the most likely one? But I’m pretty sure that some form of this will start popping up, at some point, probably not too far in the future.

Personally, when this starts happening, it’s probably not going to change the way I use the internet; I’ll still keep blogging, and I won’t take down my Flickr or YouTube accounts or anything. There has been a mantra that people have been saying since the internet was created, and when my predicted “Web 3.0” starts happening, it’ll be more true than ever: Don’t ever type anything—in an email, a blog posting, an instant message, a discussion board, or anywhere else—that you don’t want the whole world to see.

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