The Future Is All About Context: The Pragmatic Web

The semantic Web has long been heralded as the future of the Web. Proponents have said that Web experiences will some day become more meaningful and relevant based on the AI-esque computational power of natural-language processing (NLP) and structured data that is understandable by machines for interpretation.

However, with the rise of the social Web, we see that what truly makes our online experiences meaningful is not necessarily the Web’s ability to approximate human language or to return search results with syntactical exactness. The value of the semantic Web will take time because the intelligent personal agents that are able to process this structured data still have a long way to go before becoming fully actualized.

This guest post was written by Alisa Leonard-Hansen.

Rather, meaningful and relevant experiences now are born out of the context of our identities and social graph: the pragmatics, or contextual meaning, of our online identities. My Web experience becomes more meaningful and relevant to me when it is layered with contextual social data based on my identity. This is the pragmatic Web.

We need to better understand our identity as it begins to define our experience of the Web and the networked-enabled world we inhabit. Our online identity will increasingly be defined by three “pillars”: who I say I am, what I do and say, and who I connect to (and who connects to me).

To clarify, our online identities are comprised primarily of three specific kinds of data:

  • Explicit or prescriptive data (i.e. the data that I input about myself: name, age, occupation, etc.);
  • Activity or behavioral data (i.e. what I do and say online);
  • Relationship data (i.e. my social graph and what my connections say about me).

If we consider the power of this pragmatic Web (a highly relevant and individualized Web experience based on the ubiquity of our identity data), we find that it not only impacts individual user experience, but that it opens up entirely new opportunities for business online. The future is not “business as usual.” Business models will be based on what Elias Bizannes of the Data Portability Project calls the “information value network-economic value,” derived from services that focus on activities with comparative advantage and that leverage free access to data.

Consider this: as media companies scramble to identify new and innovative ways to advertise to the sea of nameless, pixeled users who graze through their content each day, a rich supply of highly valuable identity data lies just beneath the surface, left unmeasured and unmonetized.

Facebook is nothing more than perhaps the largest single database of this kind of online identity data: explicit, activity and relationship data. With the development of Facebook Connect, which allows for the “open” exchange of Facebook user data between Facebook and third parties, Facebook could conceivably (and will) create an Facebook Connect ad network (read: data exchange), supplied by the valuable and highly targetable user identity data that is currently siloed on Facebook’s servers. This identity data within Facebook is what makes the activity in “social media” so valuable.

But the centralization of identity data on one or two major networks (such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace) won’t realize the vision of the pragmatic Web. So, how will the pragmatic Web come to be? How do we realize the power of a dynamic Web that is based on our identities? We do so by empowering individuals to access and control their identity across any site or service, through standards that enable data portability and open Web inter-operability. The resulting vision is that of a highly personalized, dynamic, relevant and remixable Web experience, yielding greater access to information through discovery, communication and collaboration. For enterprise, this could mean the rise of innovative new business models, based on data-driven value exchange.

One final note on identity data as it relates to enterprise. As Bizannes points out, the value of this kind of identity data rests on the key factors of time and timeliness. Essentially, identity data is valuable only if it is recent. Facebook wouldn’t be able to sell your (permissions-enabled) data to advertisers if it used your explicit data from a year ago rather than from today. So, Bizannes argues that real-time “access” to someone’s identity matters most, and it’s no longer about data “capture.” Thus, as new business models arise out of monetizing permissions-enabled identity data, the value of the business models will depend on these entities having real-time access to the data.

Guest author: Alisa Leonard-Hansen is a digital strategist and Social Media Evangelist at iCrossing, a leading global digital agency. She is also the Communications Chair for the Data Portability Project and blogs about the social Web on her blog, TheWebisSocial.com. Follow her on Twitter @alisamleo.

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