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Yahoo! this week announced how it was to be using microformats such as hCard and location (geo-tags) in it’s search results, which is a great plus in terms of relevancy and in the field of the semantic web.  A truly semantic web needs to understand language and to derive context from what we would ask a search engine to deliver accurate results and RDF could well assist in that.  However the question needs to be asked how far people (ie. users) need the technology to go.

That might sound vague – I’m meaning that a truly semantic web still seems a far off goal despite service such as Spock and Twine (as well as Freebase and other to some extent) being the first commercial offerings in this arena.  Early reports suggest that these services are not as ground-breaking as their premise would have us believe.  What is the benefit to the end user from using semantic services? Improved search is likely but what else?

In the short term microformats seem to be a great first step.  Yahoo!’s search results are an indicator and so is the proposed support of Firefox3 (without an extension such as Operator or Tails as FF2 needs).  By developers simply marking up their code with a few classes, the context of their content can begin to be known.

I’ve recently been getting more into using LinkedIn and spending a bit of time answering a few questions on their Q&A service.  There seems to be a lot of people that are interested in social networking out there all of which can plainly see how much they have changed the web over the last few years.  A lot of the problem seems to be understanding where it will go from here.  If I could guess that…maybe I wouldn’t share!

From what I can see, there appears to be a plateau in the numbers using/accessing the big social networks at the moment if recent stats are to be believed.  If you place any meaning in this, you could assume that despite platforms being launched for widgets/social apps, users are tiring of the offering.  There is far less distinction between each network and in my eyes the core function should be to enable people to communicate and share easily.  In order to retain users are they becoming overwhelmed by applications and clutter?

On the whole, once you invest yourself and therefore your ‘social graph’ in a network service, it becomes increasingly difficult to leave, which I’m sure the service relies upon.  While open standards (which I myself favour) would allow people to move between services more easily, the biggies like Facebook are bound to be reticent to allow people to wander away from their close silo.

I like Facebook don’t get me wrong but I’m aware that I were to move wholesale over to Bebo for example, I’d have to try and persuade a growing number of my contacts (both close and acquaintances) to migrate with me.  This is part of what is term Social Network Fatigue.  Open Standards I believe would force a service to not declare any level of ownership over people’s graph but to provide a service that would be enticing for people to use.

So I’m now investing time in LinkedIn, which is a professional network that is a relative of social networking but I think can be more compelling.  As a web developer I feel that I can show what I can do through sites I have been involved in producing but it must be difficult for a client or employer to understand what I can do or have done.  Maybe through this blog and networking through services such as LinkedIn I can show more than a traditional CV otherwise would.

In many ways all of the topics of this post are linked; I see that more of the web will become socially-enabled (opposed to closed social networks) and that semantics can help derive context but in most social networks we’re missing the networking opportunities.  I’m sure Facebook will be looking at raising competition to LinkedIn (as they have already started to introduce Friend Lists) but in order to actually network, they’ll need to do a lot more with their data and request a lot more from their users.  Are professionals all likely to be Facebook users?  In many ways this is why niche social networks will succeed, at least in the short term…

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23rd March, 2008