Will Twitter Annotations Jump-Start the Semantic Web?

Among the announcements at Twitter’s first “Chirp” conference for developers this past April was the launch of a new feature called Annotations. But unlike some of the other features that were launched, such as “promoted tweets” or Twitter Places, Annotations aren’t so much a product as a substantial rethinking of the way the service functions on a fundamental level. The changes and extra dimensions they add to Twitter could have a tremendous impact, not just on the social network and the developers and companies who make use of it, but on the way we interact with the web itself.

The new feature will be one of the first large-scale implementations of what the father of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, called the “semantic web.” By that, he meant web technologies that give software and applications a built-in understanding of the relationships between the different elements of the web — that is, everything from web pages to specific pieces of web sites and services. Equipped with these kinds of tools, developers and companies could theoretically create applications and services that allow different pieces of the web to function together and exchange information, and make a whole range of services easier to use and more efficient.

One example used by Berners-Lee is the simple act of getting a cup of coffee with a friend. Instead of having to manage multiple different services or applications — calling or emailing the friend, checking a calendar, looking for a coffee shop nearby, checking a bus schedule — building semantic knowledge into software would allow all of these different applications to talk to each other. You could simply choose a task, such as booking a time in your calendar, and see dates and times that would work for you and your friend, as well as locations and bus routes automatically laid out for you.

While Annotations won’t make this high of a level of integration possible (at least not right away), the underlying principle is the same: Additional information, attached to an action, adds meaning to the behavior of users and can be interpreted in some way by software. The feature is expected to launch sometime later this year and will allow developers to add that additional information to a tweet. That might include a keyword, a string of text, a hyperlink, a geographic location or virtually anything else. These pieces of “metadata” won’t affect the character count of the original tweet, but will be carried along with it through the network and eventually be decoded, aggregated and filtered by a variety of applications or services (or by Twitter itself).

In a piece recently published at GigaOM Pro (subscription required), I look at some of the potential applications of Annotations, and what the technology implies about the future of the semantic web. Please check out the full report.