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How does the web know I want to learn the tabla?
2010-06-28: I don't care (even the slightest bit) about the World Cup, Wimbledon, or the new iPhone4.
I'm a drummer, but Rhythm magazine is likely to profile the drummer from Muse or some mainstream American rock band, so I don't buy that. Actually, if I ever live anywhere near an asian community again, I'd love to take the opportunity to learn to play the tabla.
I like butterflies, but can't help if one of the blues is dying out on the Suffolk downs (no idea if that hangs together).
I'm enraged by human trafficking but I'm not really in a position to help.
If I'm going to go on holiday, it'll be camping or somewhere that speaks Spanish.
The Internet is supposed to help me get the things I want. It was supposed to explode the one-size-fits-all approach of broadcast media such as TV, and help us find exactly what we want online.
Plus, we are supposed to have intelligent software robots that work all that out for us. Through the semantic web I'm supposed to be able to say "Morning robot, could you find me a place in Spain where it's not too hot, where you can't buy an Engligh breakfast, that I can get to with my partner, from Scarborough, next week, spend a week there, and maybe do that for under £600.". My robot is supposed to scuttle off wander around the Internet, find all the information it needs, make some judgments based on what it already knows I like (organic food mebbe), and come back with a recommendation.
It's turned out to be a very difficult thing to set up, but greater minds than mine are working on it so maybe it'll come out in the end. However, one issue standing in the way of ubiquity is that everyone will have to mark up their content so the robots can understand it as well as us humans. It's a big ask, but I suppose people will if the business benefits are there.
There's a thing called Calais which appears to be a web service to which you provide your text and it gives it back marked up in RDF. There's even a plugin for Drupal. So far so good.
So I looked at FeedTrace, which is a showcase application of Calais. I think it drinks in Twitter and provides the 'most tweeted links' and the tweets about them.
It didn't work for me (did it for you? I mean, let me know if it did). In my heart .. the last thing I want is the most popularly Tweeted link. What's it likely to be? iPhone4. World Cup. Wimbledon. Someone firing themselves over a house using only bicarbonate of soda and a space hopper.
I'm not saying it's good to be outside the mainstream. Today is not the Monday to turn up exuberant to an English workplace. One needs to keep a wary eye on mainstream culture. But isn't everyone outside the mainstream?
The point (and the danger) of the Internet is to allow us to follow our own path, find our own way, and to find others who share the same ideals.
Technology, however, has an irritating habit of coralling everyone into an ever larger camp. The Windows effect: if you don't use Windows, you're just damned weird and no-one else will be able to read your documents.
Once a technical environment clearly gains the most users, it wins. Facebook over Friendster. Who would join Friendster when all their friends are on Facebook?
Anyway, I'd like to see a semantic web application that did what the semantic web promised: gave me a robot that successfully and trustedly (without favour to any supplier) found answers on the web to things that I otherwise couldn't be bothered to do: cheapest way to travel from a to b, best performing hand drill, where in town stocks good value risotto rice. And if my robot popped up one day out of the blue and said "hey, you know that tabla learning thing you once wanted, did you realise there's a chap on the next street who would be willing to teach you, and he's not expensive" .. that would make me happy.
FeedTrace might excite those who get excited by the re-arrangement of information, but for me it doesn't sell the semantic web. It's a hell of a lot of thinking for something that's not compelling.
Compelling is my favourite word at the moment. Basically, online unless you can grab someone's attention and connect, it's all for nothing. And that didn't connect. I gave it all of about 2 minutes of my attention, that felt like a lot, and now I resent the fact that they wasted my time. Amazing isn't it?

By John Allsopp
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