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my foafnaut manifesto
the semantic web [gif] [pdf]

Was it this hard keeping up with technological changes in the Industrial Revolution? Did people in the Italian Renaissance consider that what they were doing could alter human relationships and communication?

It's tempting to think that Life should go on as before, while we conduct business through email and love-affairs through SMS. Each slice of daily life committed to the ether becomes a potential part of a remembered whole over which we as individuals have no control. Our privacy is eroded as the information accretes. Google Knows Too Much.

But the by-product of the global chatter is a whole new layer of human communication. As groups form around mailing lists and chat-rooms, information is shared on an unprecedented scale. We live our lives increasingly in the open, building online personae which represent us in virtual communities the Internet over.

Know what it is

As I discovered while working at InTouch, the biggest challenge in building Internet communities is audience participation. Bums on seats. And just assuming people are willing, how do you select the tools to enable them? However much people like the idea, if the technology doesn't match their expectations, they'll abandon it.

Existing groupware solutions offer some, but not all of the answers. Suppose a group of people congregate around a mailing list, exchanging information they find interesting. At some point the conversation diverges, and pretty soon they want an IRC channel. While chatting, they find that informtion gleaned there needs somehow to be archived and transmitted back to the team on the mailing list. So they they begin to log their chat on the web. But the conversation is asynchronous, messy, chaotic. The proliferation of information very quickly becomes unmanageable.

And this is the root of the problem. In human terms, the information exchange is more or less unintelligible to those outside its immediate vicinity.

It's all mixed up and there's way too much of it.


We're an adaptable species. There's no reason why we can't make all the white noise make sense. All we need to do is develop models, or ontologies, that speak our language. Cross parsable computer syntax with intelligible human speech to make new vocabularies. Create new maps to make it all navigable. Write bots which provide intelligent answers to well-phrased questions.

The technology is out there, building blocks for a new virtual metropolis. All we have to do is build.

Make it free

So eventually, I found what I was looking for. I had pictured a group of people developing independent frameworks to map their relationships, their work, their communication. Building tools simply by describing them and then applying them in the process of building. They were right under my nose.

The crucial element was that it was open-source, and distributed. I couldn't envision commerciallizing the community any more than I could imagine selling a software license for friendship. And I couldn't imagine a healthier, more innovative development environment.

Own it

Each of us owns and controls our own data. We determine what shapes it, and what it describes. We choose how we write it, and how we read it. We post it on our own websites.

My activista friends fret about information harvesting. I argue that this is a fact of life. Big Brother has been watching for longer than anyone cares to remember, but now we can take advantage of that information too. We can map our communities and relationships in ways that allow us to build up webs of trust, mining our community networks in search of friends of our friends.

The missing link at the moment is us. The beauty of these tools and ideas is that they have no meaning until they are shaped by use. The only limits to use are our imaginations.