Theme: Implicit Web

Now that we’ve blogged about our thematic investing approach at Foundry Group, we thought we’d spend some time explaining some of the themes we are excited about. Yesterday we wrote about our interest in next-generation human-computer-interaction applications and technologies, and today we are going to talk about another one of our active themes.

One of the areas we are deeply interested in is what we (and many others) call the implicit web. While it may be imperfect as an umbrella term, it is easier for us to say (and still respect ourselves) than something like Web 3.0, which we sincerely hope does not ever enjoy the ubiquity (and subsequent meaninglessness) that the Web 2.0 moniker attained.

As often happens, our interest in the implicit web evolved out of another, earlier theme we’d been working on, RSS, which led to our prior investments in FeedBurner (now part of Google), NewsGator and Technorati. As we explored the world of RSS, we began blogging and subscribing to hundreds of blogs and mainstream-media news feeds. When we added this new deluge of content to the information onslaught we were already experiencing from email and other information sources, it quickly became apparent to us that the computing tools we used every day would need to evolve to help us cope with the familiar (yet ever increasing) problem of information overload. Around the same time we added feed-reading to our growing list of required daily activities, we were also beginning to spend time maintaining our (stove-piped) social networks in LinkedIn, Facebook and elsewhere.

While there is huge value to be gained through the judicious use of these new tools and technologies, the overhead required to manage them can be onerous. We could all gain even more leverage from these new technologies if our computing environment had even the most basic understanding of how the people, places, things and actions in these different tools were related to one another.

We think of the technologies that fall under the implicit web theme as a next-generation set of applications, tools and infrastructure that stitch together a long list of interrelated and overlapping ideas: the academic and theoretical ideas behind the Semantic Web, the utility of social networks and social media, crowd sourcing/wisdom-of-crowds, folksonomy, user attention data, advanced search and content analysis tools, lifestream analysis and numerous others.

When combined, these technologies offer the promise of a more unified computing environment that spans the applications where a user consumes and creates information (email clients, web browsers, RSS readers, etc) and is aware of the user’s preferences, interests and interpersonal relationships without requiring a ton of heavy lifting on the user’s part to get useful work done.

Naturally, there are many possible embodiments and applications of these ideas. For example, consider messaging and social networks — why do we have to explicitly program multiple sites with our social network data again and again? Wouldn’t an analysis of a user’s actual messaging traffic across twitter and their various IM and email accounts provide a better, more empirical view of their true social network than the one that was explicitly input into LinkedIn that may be more aspirational than actual?

As another example, suppose a user reads every last word of Brad’s posts about technology and entrepreneurship, but always skips over his posts about the show 24 and running marathons. And suppose that same user not only reads all of Fred Wilson’s posts about venture capital but also takes the time to read each of his posts about music and always downloads the mp3s that Fred posts to his blog. Perhaps our compute infrastructure (which includes all the web apps and client apps and computers and devices a person uses) should help the aforementioned user by placing Brad’s technology and entrepreneurship posts and Fred’s VC and music posts at the top of his to-do list, put Brad’s running and TV posts at the bottom of the list, and download Fred’s recommended songs while also suggesting additional related bands and noting upcoming nearby performances of those musicians.

Tools and applications like this are certainly possible today — some aspects may be fiendishly difficult to implement, while others “simply” require a novel combination of tools and a UI that will appear obvious in hindsight after they have spurred mass adoption.

While much of this may sound theoretical, we have already put our money where our mouths (brains?) are. In our portfolio, Lijit is our initial investment in the implicit web theme. Lijit produces search tools and statistics for bloggers and publishers that provide incredibly rich and highly targeted search results based not only on the content that appears on a blogger or publisher’s local site, but also extends out to the broader network of content related to the publisher — it searches their photos and tags on sites like del.icio.us and flickr, and also searches content found and produced by people who appear in that publisher’s blogroll and social network. In effect, Lijit produces a custom search engine that includes the universe of content related to a specific person or publisher, providing highly relevant results by taking a person-centric and relationship-aware view of the web.

Of course, we are actively looking for other investment opportunities that fit within this theme, so if you are working on something interesting, we’d love to hear about it.

  • Aziz Grieser

    Hello group,

    I've recently applied to TechStars (pronounced tech “stahs” by Brad and I during school in Boston), and I thought this post was very similar to Master of 500 hat's new post, here: http://500hats.typepad.com/. I've left a similar comment there, but I'll add my two cents to the above analysis of semantic web, web 3.0, or implicit web.

    I've heard this subject talked about in two ways by people that I consider most knowledgeable:

    1) A “genius” older mathematician and geek from Russia, who's small internet security company was bought by Microsoft, and who confided in me during lunch after speaking at the HBS “Cyberposium” last year: “something I should not be saying”, about Microsoft's Web 3.0 vision and plan: He gave me a very technical explanation, but I believe the gist is that his company is at the forefront of this plan, the very reason it was acquired at such a high price, after an intense auction-battle with another he wouldn't name (Google?), and he simply called it, “ghost”.

    Sound weird? I thought so too.

    He explained that information, programs, and all your “files” will not exist on any of our own devices anymore, but merely be ghost reflections of files, processes, applications, etc, that are running inside Microsoft. This is not like logging into GMAIL and using Google's online tools he explains, but more like what you described early above when you said:

    “… it quickly became apparent to us that the computing tools we used every day would need to evolve to help us cope with the familiar (yet ever increasing) problem of information overload.”

    As he put it: “What you're looking at is only a reflection created by our servers, but your reflection, in terms of both data (like pictures) and tools (like GMAIL), will be completely unique from anyone else's, based on you. Your applications will be hybrids of thousands of other programs to meet your needs the best.” Kinda creepy, and as you can see, I don't fully grasp the explanation either.

    2) The second explanation is “AI” and what I always felt the next natural progression from web 2.0 “cloud” effects would be, and Google founder, Sergey Brin, confirmed my hypothesis the first time I heard him say it (I'm certain he thought of it long before me, but it is logical for anyone to come to this conclusion themselves. He's been preaching about AI for a long time.)

    This explanation differs from yours, because not only is your “stuff”, as we can call it”, evolving to your needs, it's offering preemptive solutions to problems you are not aware of yet. So, if you're always buying the same crap at the same rates and times, going to the same places, seeing the same people, and having rational preferences, why wouldn't a commerce platform start correctly guessing my next purchases exactly at the right time, and being so good that I authorize the company to make decisions for me? That's really what I want out of a financial services firm anyways.

    In this model, TurboTax doesn't ask you questions and you never even have to think “I have to do my taxes”. Taxes are already done and your return is automatically optimized real-time with your daily action.

    I'm not saying any of what I just wrote is the exact definition of what web 3.0 is , or is not. I'm saying that I don't think anybody knows exactly, and I think Sergey knows best of all.

    A lot of people are discussing these topics lately. Look at Adonomics.com' blog and Shop.com founder, Lee Lorenzen's argument for a $100B Facebook Valuation… (No comment.) Very similar themes to my old business model, and these of my blog entries:
    http://imagdg.com/?p=1669
    http://imagdg.com/?p=1677
    http://imagdg.com/?p=6
    and a friend's blog: http://jeremystein.net/post/30002859

    The End

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