Beyond Web 2.0: The social web or the semantic web ? and the rise of the Umbrella social networks



Beyond Web 2.0 is still more Web 2.0(for now). The full impact of Web 2.0 will be felt only in 2008 and beyond. The Semantic web is not the future of Web20. The full impact of Web 20 itself has yet to be felt because Web 20 technologies like cloud computing and ‘umbrella social networks’ (i.e. social networks encompassing the personal web, enterprise and the mobile web and incorporating presence) are still emerging and will gather momentum in 2008 and beyond.


It seems ironic to talk about ‘beyond Web 2.0’ almost a week away from the Berlin Web 2.0 expo (where I am speaking).

Extending the ‘2.0’ numbering notation, we could naturally think of Web 3.0.

Much has been already said about Web 3.0 – most of it self serving.

Nova Spivack and Jason Calacanis have each attempted to define Web 3.0 corresponding to their respective companies (Radar networks and Mahalo)

In a world of hyper connectivity and information sharing – such definitions don’t go very far because of their inherent limitations based on their proponent’s businesses. So, I won’t go into those in detail. You can read more about these definitions HERE

Even Tim Berners shrugs at the term Web 2.0 but ironically does not hesitate in attempting to speak of Web 3.0 as a form of Semantic web. Of course, the semantic web is defined in an article from Tim Berners Lee himself as early as 2001 in the Scientific American magazine (The Semantic Web A new form of Web content that is meaningful to computers will unleash a revolution of new possibilities By Tim Berners-Lee, James Hendler and Ora Lassila)

But to understand ‘beyond Web 2.0’ – we have to appreciate a bit about why Web 2.0 took off as much as it did .. and why so many people did(do!) not get it.

Social software and social computing

In defining the Web 2.0 paradigm, Tim O Reilly’s genius lies in taking computing along the social domain and in laying the intellectual foundations of a new class of software i.e. social software.

Even before the seven principles of Web 2.0 were postulated by Tim O Reilly, we intuitively accepted the social aspects of the Web(for example Wikis existed before that time and were created by Ward Cunningham). However, Web 2.0 brought all these ideas together and provided us a common lexicon / framework to discuss these terms

Critically, Web 2.0 comes under the umbrella of social computing/social software. The term Social software is normally applied to a range of web-enabled software programs that allow users to interact, share, and meet other users. (Adapted from wikipedia definition of social software)

One might view ‘social software’ as a contradiction in terms. Traditionally software is almost ‘antisocial’ (i.e. logical – with little or no human interaction)

Consequently, many people from a programming background find the idea of social software as ‘marketing driven hype’. And some from marketing – do indeed hype it as the next big thing.

However, that should not take us away from the basic merits of the Web 2.0 definition as defined by the seven principles of Web 2.0 and a new class of software that is underpinned by Web 2.0 principles like harnessing collective intelligence, the web as a platform and so on.

Beyond Web 2.0

If we recap the title of Tim Berners Lee’s article on the semantic web, it says : A new form of Web content that is meaningful to computers

So, to me; it is all about meaningful to computers(semantic web)? OR meaningful to people(social software/social web)

Of course, they are not mutually exclusive .. hence they will coexist – but the emphasis on each is important. The semantic web is oriented to a new form for content that makes sense to machines. The social web(which includes Web 2.0 ) relates to web enabled software that facilitates communication between people.

The paths of machines and men .. are both divergent and coexisting.

So, let’s start with the machines(the semantic web)

The semantic Web

The end goal of the semantic web is to extract meaning from data. Hence, content should be machine readable, machine interpretable(the computer must make sense of it) and machine actionable. In its ultimate incarnation, it leads to the rarified world of science fiction bots negotiating deals on behalf of their creators.

How practical is all this?

Not very – in my view.

Avatars and bots aside, the more basic question is: Who will add the semantics(structure) to the semantic web?

The semantic web needs someone to do the semantics before it becomes truly useful. This is a chicken and egg situation – to make the semantic web useful, you need content to be tagged – but who would tag the content in the first place(and why)?

Semantics for a specific vertical are relatively easy. Semantics for ‘Joe public’(consumers) are another matter entirely.

And to be really useful; the semantics must be for all .. And this is where almost all efforts led by specific companies may fail because the web cannot be expected to cede control to a company – it must be an open standard. And even if islands of semantics evolve(one for pharmaceuticals, one for automotive and so on), they may be just that – islands … Islands of semantic content are useful – but do not translate into a semantic web.

Ironically, the best solution to the semantic web ‘chicken and egg’ problem(aka who will create the semantics for the semantic web) comes from Web 2.0(social web). Web 2.0 ‘works’ because it solves this very fundamental chicken and egg problem by getting the users to do the semantics in return for some benefits(storing and sharing pictures for example as in flickr). Thus, it provides a ‘lite’ solution to the semantic web problem.

This illustrates the limitations of taking a software only approach of the semantic web. If you ignore the social aspects of the Web, then software can take you only so far ..

Web 2.0

Before we proceed with this section, A quick note: I do not consider either Mobile Web 2.0 or Enterprise 2.0 as ‘beyond’ Web 2.0 because they are sub memes of Web 2.0 i.e. extend the basic idea of Web 2.0 along specific dimensions.

Unlike the semantic Web, Web 2.0 addresses a completely different problem domain – that of social computing.

Thus, if we consider web 20 as primarily a manifestation of the social web, then it follows that the idea of ‘beyond web 20′ has to address the evolution of the social web (and not the semantic web)

In my view, the two Web 2.0 concepts that pertain to the evolution of the social web are

a) Social network as a ‘meta/umbrella’ layer above the personal, enterprise and the mobile web


b) Cloud computing

The full impact of both is yet to be felt.

The first is a relatively simple idea – but very disruptive ..

It can be summarised as ‘facebook(or similar) as your primary interface to the Web’.

The idea is – we “log in’ to a single profile on our social network. The resultant social network then becomes an ‘umbrella’ network encompassing your Web, Mobile Web and even the Enterprise Web. The concept of umbrella social networks becomes even more powerful when presence is added to the mix.

This is a concern to many including Google. Many people no longer use email because email is replaced by facebook messages. If your entire web experience is replaced by facebook and the advertising for facebook is exclusively from Microsoft .. this is clearly a threat for Google(and a master move on behalf of Microsoft). So, already we are seeing some moves in this direction – and one can expect some response from Google to this.

(Note: I can’t find the reference but JP Rangaswami had spoken of a similar idea – which I call ‘umbrella social networks’ – in one of his blogs. If I find the blog, I shall link it.)

To really work, this idea needs a fine grained privacy control and an open social network. But it is not so strange to think that our entire web experience may be driven from a facebook(or similar) profile. Facebook is already courting the enterprise

Also, in the article 15 reasons Facebook may be worth $15bn, here are some insights ..


7. Facebook is the new web: The decision to open up the network to outside developers turned Facebook into a destination for many uses, like messaging, photos and video. Of course, as Facebook is on the web it could never really be the new web.

11. Facebook messaging is the new e-mail. Everyone feels stressed from a deluge of e-mail from unwanted people and companies. But Facebook messages are always from friends.

12. Facebook’s “status updates” have become the easiest way to let friends know what you are doing and how you are feeling at any given moment.


Related to the idea of umbrella social networks is the idea of ‘Cloud computing’ – I have spoken of cloud computing many times on the OpenGardens blog for instance : Mobile Ajax- more than a pretty face and Cloud computing in the context of enterprise 2.0 . The idea has many adherents – especially Nokia and Google.

It is related to the idea of umbrella social networks since to have a seamless experience between the Web, the Mobile Web and the Enterprise; the data has to ideally reside in the ‘Cloud’.

So, the core idea is of this blog(and the evolution of Web 2.0) can be summarised as:

Cloud + a social network user interface to the cloud(where the cloud spans the Web, the Mobile Web and the Enterprise).

Eric Schmidt also refers to cloud computing as the future of applications with applications having characteristics like : being pieced together, small, data is in the cloud, run on any device PC or mobile phone, fast, customizable, distributed virally(social networks, email etc).


Let me recap the synopsis as the conclusion ..

Beyond Web 2.0 is still more Web 2.0(for now). The full impact of Web 2.0 will be felt only in 2008 and beyond. The Semantic web is not the future of web20. Instead, the full impact of web 20 itself has yet to be felt because web 20 technologies like cloud computing and ‘umbrella social networks’ (i.e. social networks encompassing the personal web, enterprise and the mobile web and incorporating presence) are still emerging and will gather momentum in 2008 and beyond.

Please contact me at ajit.jaokar at if you want to meet me in Berlin for the Web 2.0 expo where I am speaking next week