The next big stage in the evolution of the Internet, according to many experts and luminaries, will be the advent of the Semantic Web–that is, technologies that let computers process the meaning of Web pages instead of simply downloading or serving them up blindly. Microsoft’s acquisition of the semantic search engine Powerset earlier this year shows faith in this vision. But thus far, little Semantic Web technology has been available to the general public. That’s why many eyes will be on Twine, a Web organizer based on semantic technology that launches publicly today.
Developed by Radar Networks, based in San Francisco, Twine is part bookmarking tool, part social network, and part recommendation engine, helping users collect, manage, and share online information related to any area of interest. For the novice, it can be tricky figuring out exactly where to start. But for experienced users, Twine can be a powerful way to research a subject collaboratively or find people with common interests, with the usual features of a bookmarking site augmented by Twine’s underlying semantic technology.
After creating an account, a user adds a Twine bookmarklet to her browser’s bookmarks, then adds items to her Twine page by clicking the bookmarklet as she surfs the Web. Bookmarks, too, can easily be imported from a browser or from another Web bookmarking service.
Twine uses artificial intelligence–machine learning and natural language processing–to parse the contents of Web pages and extract key concepts, such as people, places, and organizations, from the pages that a user saves. The site then uses these concepts to link information and users. For example, creating a twine–a bundle of bookmarks related to a particular topic–devoted to a specialized technique in computer game design quickly led to the discovery of twines (created by other users) devoted to other areas of game design and to twines devoted to a popular game that uses the technique. It also led to other users interested in the subject. Twine is also meant to automatically generate tags, descriptions, and summaries of bookmarked Web pages. In the preview, or beta, version, this feature didn’t always work properly, but Nova Spivack, CEO of Radar Networks, says that the functionality has been improved ahead of the public launch. Twines offer a hub for collecting, sharing, and discussing information. For example, users have created twines devoted to twentieth-century music, science and technology, philosophy, and cool things found around the Web.
On the surface, Twine looks a lot like many other social-networking applications: users make connections, share, and discuss information, and the artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing built into the website is not immediately obvious. “The Semantic Web is a technology that’s useful. It’s a means to an end, not an end in itself,” says Spivack. “What we’re doing with this release and going forward is, we’re talking about what you can use Twine for, and the fact that it’s powered by the Semantic Web is a detail for geeks.”
But Jim Hendler, a professor of computer science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a member of Twine’s advisory board, says that Semantic Web technologies can set Twine apart from other social-networking sites. This could be true, so long as users learn to take advantage of those technologies by paying attention to recommendations and following the threads that Twine offers them. Users could easily miss this, however, by simply throwing bookmarks into Twine without getting involved in public twines or connecting to other users.
It would be nice to be able to use Twine for a few more specialized purposes. For example, it seems ideal for finding events related to areas of interest–indie rock bands playing in Boston, for example. But the current interface deals awkwardly with dates. A Twine calendar, which categorizes events intelligently, would be a logical extension of the service. Spivack says that such a feature, as well as further developments, are on the way. As these arrive, and as the company adds more ways to classify data, the real value of the Semantic Web could well start to surface.