Nova Spivack on the Future of Twine and the Intelligent Web

August 25 2008 / by memebox
Category: Social Media   Year: General   Rating: 6 Hot

Twine creator and CEO Nova Spivack wants to change the world by enabling a much, much smarter Web. In the meantime, as Twine enters its public beta phase, he’s more than happy to help guide Web-based content through the baby-steps of back-end development, simultaneously allowing millions of users to “leverage collective intelligence to better share and discover information around their interests on the Web.” If indeed Spivack makes the right moves and successfully generates the requisite critical mass, his company Radar Networks could grow to a billion $+ valuation inside a few years, rising up to compete against the likes of Google in the contextual advertising market.

In this exclusive interview with Spivack (full transcript available at bottom) MemeBox’s Venessa Posavec asked some tough and comprehensive questions about Spivack’s vision of the semantic web, the near-term future of Twine, and the future of what Spivack calls the Intelligent web.

Some choice excerpts include:

On the future of the semantic web:

“It is about fundamentally upgrading the quality of the data on the Web.”

The Intelligent Web “is rather far off in the future still, in 2020 and beyond.”

On the trajectory of Twine:

“We’re seeing people spend extraordinary amounts of time on Twine, because interest networks are so sticky. When people can congregate efficiently and meaningfully around shared interests, amazing things can happen. This is what we are building, ultimately – a platform for networks that are about what you know – not who you know.”

“Our agenda for the next 12 months is to move from our present invite-only beta to an app that is ready for ‘prime-time’ use by mainstream consumers. This is mainly accomplished by working on usability. We need to make Twine easier for ordinary consumers to quickly understand and use. We also have a large number of improvements and new features to add. We hope to launch next major version in October 2008.”

“It is possible that Twine will become your primary touch-point for content on the Web, in part because of the intelligence that we can bring to the table. But we mostly think of Twine as a hub of collective intelligence, and Twine plays nice with e-mail, browsers, bookmarking tools, RSS, wiki-style editing, video, photographs, etc.”

On Twine as a potential Google killer:

“[B]ecause intelligent applications like Twine can understand context and even make inferences from that context, they can deliver a whole new kind of advertising that provides real value, in the context of what a given user is actually interested in.”

Here’s the full transcript of the fascinating and revelaing interview:

MemeBox: What is the macro significance of a semantically organized web?

Nova Spivack: The Semantic Web is essentially made up of a set of technologies designed to help the Web to become a place where information exists in a format that software applications can easily understand. By making information more accessible, software will in turn become increasingly able to understand and organize that information automatically and intelligently.

In other words, the Web, and the software that runs on top of it, will become smarter, and more intelligent. Not as smart as humans perhaps, but much smarter than, say, your word processor is today.

MemeBox: What are some potential applications of the semantic web?

Nova Spivack: I think that collective intelligence is the main thing that the Semantic Web is enabling, and Twine is a great example of a tool that is moving us towards a new paradigm that we’re calling “interest networking.”

Twine helps people keep up with what matters to them, by teaming up to organize, share, and track information with networks of people who share their interests. Twine is like a social network for sharing, organizing and finding knowledge. It helps individuals and groups achieve smarter, more productive, collective intelligence. This is interest networking. It is networking with other like-minded users around the topics that you care most about.

As background, a “Twine” is a place for your interests. It’s the next step beyond a file server, wiki, personal home page, or database. Users can create a Twine for any group, team or community. Twines can be private and personal, private for groups, or public for groups and communities.

The most popular Twines right now represent an array of interests, with names like Foodie Extraordinaire, Alternative Medicine, The Art of Filmmaking, Science Fiction Depot, Oddities Around The World, Sustainable Living, Humor and so on. The #1 most popular Twine is just called “Cool,” actually – it has 1,500 members who all contribute the coolest stuff they find around the Web. It’s easy to get lost in “Cool” for hours.

But that’s just the public Twines. There are private Twines for conferences, school groups, corporate teams, families, and much more. And there are thousands of Twines for more esoteric interests. In fact the smaller Twines are some of our more interesting use cases – there are only so many people in the world who are intensely interested in British cartoonists, but they are all finding each other using Twine.

The “intelligent” part of Twine is what it does under the hood, so to speak – automatically classifying and labeling documents, web pages, e-mails, photos, videos, etc. and connecting the relevant pieces to each other like a trail of breadcrumbs.

Twine also looks at individual users’ interests, understands their preferences without ever having to ask, and suggests new Twines to join, or other members of the community to connect with. Some of my favorite user stories are about two people connecting and forming a friendship about a shared interest that they never could have otherwise known they had in common.

MemeBox: How will the semantic web enable advances in scientific research and breakthroughs?

Nova Spivack: For some great examples of this, you should read this blog post. com/nova_spivacks_weblog/2008/ 03/my-visit-to-der.html .

MemeBox: What do you see as the roadmap for the broader web becoming semantic? How long might that take?

The Semantic Web is about the pendulum swinging to the back-end infrastructure of the Web. That is, it is about fundamentally upgrading the quality of the data on the Web. It’s not necessarily a matter of what to keep and what to throw away.

Current Web 2.0 technologies like AJAX have brought about huge improvements that remain quite valuable, particularly with regards to user interfaces. Web 2.0 has enabled the social Web, and that aspect of the Web isn’t going away – in fact, its going to continue to grow. When you look at our product Twine, in fact, it resembles any of a number of existing Web 2.0 services, like Facebook and FriendFeed for example. To be sure, we’ll start to see more and more of the inherent intelligence of the Semantic Web delivered at the level of the interface, but for the most part the real innovation right now is going on “under the hood,” so to speak.

There is a set of Semantic Web standards approved by the W3C, things like RDF, OWL, and SPARQL that are helping us do the heavy lifting of making information – and thus computers – smarter. These technologies are enabling the next generation of the Web.

RDF, for instance, is potentially as important as HTML. Just as HTML enabled a universally reusable Web of content, RDF enables the Data Web, a universally reusable Web of data. The Web browser is a universal client for content, but not really for data. Web browsers can render any content written in HTML in a standard way. That was a big leap back in the early 1990’s. Previously each type of content required a different application to view it. The browser unified them all—this separation of rendering from data made life easier for programmers, and for end-users. A single tool could render any data because the data carried metadata (HTML) that described how to render it.

But currently although browsers can render the formatting and layout of data, they don’t know anything about the actual meaning of that data. The same is true for all applications today—they have to be explicitly programmed in advance to interpret each kind of data they need to use.

The Semantic Web provides a solution for this problem that is analogous to what HTML did for content—RDF and OWL provide a standard way to describe the meaning of any data structure, such that any application that speaks these languages can correctly interpret the meaning without having to have been explicitly programmed to do so in advance. The data becomes self-describing.

In other words, the Semantic Web offers the promise of a universal client for data. That would be a big improvement over how applications are written and how data is managed and stored today. It’s a significant back-end level upgrade, and it requires not only that data is represented differently, but new tools for managing it (new kinds of databases, new API’s, new forms of search, etc.).

There’s also an added benefit to the Semantic Web – one which is sometimes over-emphasized, and that is the idea of reasoning. The rich semantics of the RDF and OWL languages enable metadata that not only describes the meaning of data, but also the logical relationships between data and various concepts.

This richer metadata can be used to support machine reasoning, such as simple inferencing, across data on the Web. That’s powerful and will enable a whole new generation of smarter applications and services – the Intelligent Web.

However exciting, to finally answer your question, I think that this is rather far off in the future still, in 2020 and beyond. Today, just making the Data Web would be a huge innovation. Transforming the Web from a distributed file-server to a distributed database is a huge enough step on its own.

MemeBox: What’s the timeline for Twine?

Nova Spivack: Let’s start with where Twine is today. Twine is the first consumer application of the Semantic Web – it’s a new online service that helps people and groups leverage collective intelligence to better share and discover information around their interests on the Web. One of the key themes of Web 3.0 is to be help people make sense of the overwhelming amount of information and change in the online world, and with Twine, we think interests are going to play a key organizing role in that process. Your interests comprise the portion of your information and relationships that are actually important enough that you want to keep track of them and share them with others.

Twine will come out of invite beta this Fall and will be generally available at that time. We did however, make public information within Twine visible to search engines like Google, however, already this summer. As a result, non-members already have “read” access to all public Twine data, but it starts to show the world the kinds of valuable content that our beta users have been finding, organizing and sharing using the Twine service.

In general we’ve been adding new features to the product steadily, but with little fanfare – right now we’re just keeping our heads down working on Twine and making it the best that it can be.

Our agenda for the next 12 months is to move from our present invite-only beta to an app that is ready for “prime-time” use by mainstream consumers. This is mainly accomplished by working on usability. We need to make Twine easier for ordinary consumers to quickly understand and use. We also have a large number of improvements and new features to add. We hope to launch next major version in October 2008. Following that our main focus will be on acquiring users.

MemeBox: Using Twine, will I be able to do away with the hundreds of RSS feeds I subscribe to and skim daily? Will Twine be able to find the information I’m looking for better than a keyword search?

No. While Twine’s recommendations are quite powerful, we mostly see Twine working in conjunction with other technologies like RSS. It is possible that Twine will become your primary touch-point for content on the Web, in part because of the intelligence that we can bring to the table. But we mostly think of Twine as a hub of collective intelligence, and Twine plays nice with e-mail, browsers, bookmarking tools, RSS, wiki-style editing, video, photographs, etc.

You wrote a post back in Oct. ‘06 about improving media by determining exposure of a story based on the number of people it affected/its impact. Do you see Twine or other semantic web apps doing just that? Will Twine have the ability to track a story or event’s relevance based on the tags and classifications it accumulates over time?

Nova Spivack: This is certainly possible as the systems that we and others are building get better and better, We’re still relatively early (remember that Web 3.0 is commonly defined as the decade from 2010-2020) but yes, the Semantic Web is going to have a huge impact on media and publishing and I think you’ll start to see these sorts of things in the near future. The semantic Web enables context (and therefore relevance) in a way never before possible, and uses such as you describe are good examples of how a better understanding of context might be implemented to help us find better content around what we are interested in.

MemeBox: It seems like Twine will be able to provide extremely customizable information, which sounds like a marketer’s playground. Do you plan to offer advertising space on Twine? If so, how might that work? :)

Nova Spivack: Yes, though we’re not talking about this aspect of Twine very much just yet.

What is the difference between advertising and content? The answer is: relevance. And because semantic technologies are enabling a more intelligent version of the Web, relevance will increase substantially. Again, as in my answer above, the key here is context – because intelligent applications like Twine can understand context and even make inferences from that context, they can deliver a whole new kind of advertising that provides real value, in the context of what a given user is actually interested in.

MemeBox: Will there be graphs associated with the connections between things? For instance, could you use Twine to plot an emerging trend? Or to get a better sense of a politician’s platform and history?

Nova Spivack: There have been a lot of requests for tools like this and we’ve done a lot of work around the visualization of semantic data in-house. A few users have even built their own versions of what you are describing – you should definitely check them out.

We’re still exploring this possibility, but it’s not a near-term priority.

MememBox: Do you think Twine could be a mobilizer for grassroots movements – enabling like-minded people to easily find each other and collaborate?

Nova Spivack: Absolutely – and that exactly the goal we have. We’re seeing people spend extraordinary amounts of time on Twine, because interest networks are so sticky. When people can congregate efficiently and meaningfully around shared interests, amazing things can happen. This is what we are building, ultimately – a platform for networks that are about what you know – not who you know. It’s a powerful idea that our users are responding to wholeheartedly.

MemeBox: Each person’s Twine is shared between your group of friends/people you trust. So there will be mini semantic webs all over. What if I want access to someone else’s web? Will Twine become a series of gated communities? How can you ensure that the valuable connections people make between things is accessible to everyone else?

Nova Spivack: To a degree this is up to users. Our privacy settings are very granular – down to the object level. Privacy is extremely important, especially in the era of Open Data.

However, most of the content within Twine is public – we don’t foresee this being a problem. People sign up with us precisely because they want to share and collaborate, and we’re seeing that behavior throughout the site. The community is quite altruistic at this point, and its fun to watch.

But as a company we’ve got to continue to take privacy very seriously, and we do every day.

MemeBox: Will Twine eventually be made available in 3D?

Nova Spivack: See my answer to the question above re: visualization.

Please list some powerful new technologies or disruptive events that you expect to see by Dec 31, 2008.

Nova Spivack: See: http://novaspivack.typepad. com/nova_spivacks_weblog/2008/ 04/a-few-predictio.html. com/nova_spivacks_weblog/2008/ 04/a-few-predictio.html

MemeBox: 5 years out – Please list some powerful new technologies or disruptive events that you expect to see by 2013.

Nova Spivack: See: http://novaspivack.typepad. com/nova_spivacks_weblog/2007/ 02/steps_towards_a.html. com/nova_spivacks_weblog/2007/ 02/steps_towards_a.html

MemeBox: 10 years out – Please list some powerful new technologies or disruptive events that you expect to see by 2018.

Nova Spivack: See: http://novaspivack.typepad. com/nova_spivacks_weblog/2008/ 02/a-classificatio.html. com/nova_spivacks_weblog/2008/ 02/a-classificatio.html.

Comment Thread (3 Responses)

  1. Awesome interview. It’s particularly interesting to note that Spivack’s predictions for an intelligent web range beyond 2020. He’s said that he doesn’t expect AGI to out-compete that.

    Posted by: Alvis Brigis   August 25, 2008
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  2. Very informative interview and piece. I can’t get enough of the semantic web. I can’t wait to see what it will do.

    Posted by: Mielle Sullivan   August 26, 2008
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  3. Scaaaary…

    Posted by: martymcfly   August 27, 2008
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