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June 25, 2008

Zigtag for social semantic tagging


I started to use Radar Networks’ Twine at the invitation of CEO Nova Spivak after writing this earlier this year (also see this). I enjoyed it for a while, especially because a lot of technology folks were hooking up with each other, especially the semantic web community, on Twine. But I found it tedious to work through beta issues and to be bothered with recommendations or news about who was saying or bookmarking things about what. (I should have turned off the emails sooner!)

I was also disappointed that Twine was taking an apparently folksonomic approach to tagging. It was as if Radar Networks was riding semantic web buzz without really embracing it openly or sharing the momentum that the invite-only community was investing in. That may not sound fair – I believe that there are semantics in the back room, but that’s how it felt and it’s still the way it looks. But probably the worst part is the process that you have to go through to add a bookmark – which is the whole point, of course! (I ultimately sacrificed popup blockers, but the process still seems laborious compared to other alternatives.)

I stumbled across Zigtag almost accidentally while working for a VC firm with a portfolio of semantic startups. What I like most about Zigtag is that they make it obvious that they are building an ontology of tags and encourage users to select semantic tags (i.e., concepts) rather than folksonomic “words”. They also provide tools for managing tags that allow you to move smoothly and incrementally from a folksonomic to a more semantic approach.


The key to the semantic approach for Zigtag is that shared tags are just that – they are more precise than strings. They are not only words – they have definitions.

Unfortunately, like Twine, Zigtag’s ontological model remains hidden.

My initial experience with Zigtag resulted in immediate jubilation. The Firefox plug-in works for me. It lets me type in tags with nice completion and recommendations from the tags that others have defined. Within 15 minutes I was writing to compliment Zigtag on a practical, elegant approach to the semantic bookmarking problem. I liked it much better than Twine right off the bat – and despite its book-market, I like Twine a lot! Within a few minutes I had an email from their founder, Reg Cheramy. An hour later we were talking. We talked about his early meeting with Michael Arrington, how his work compares to bulletin board or discussion forum emphasis in Twine , how he facilitates semantic tagging given a very large ontology and vocabulary, and so on.

Whether Reg took my advice to emphasize groups more or was already headed in that direction is unclear, but Zigtag now has group functionality that seems as good as (and in some ways better) than Twine’s. If you go to Zigtag the web site, you can find groups to join, but unlike Twine’s web site, Zigtag does not recommend groups for you based on your interests. I’m not sure this is a problem, though. Recommendations can be distracting. Nonetheless, if people want recommendations for more than content, it would be a simple step for Zigtag given the fact that they already recommend content that others have bookmarked.

I’m not too concerned with recommendations, even of content, so I cannot comment on Zigtag versus Twine on that front. Generally, there is plenty of RSS and recommendation noise to go around. I prefer the linked approach to finding information rather than searching and I don’t expect recommendations to become excellent in the near term. For more on this, you might want to check out the recent news about Vulcan’s EVRI investment at Webware or ReadWriteWeb.

I like to use Zigtag from the sidebar in Firefox. Actually, I owe Reg additional thanks for, in effect, causing me to abandon Internet Explorer for Firefox. I use it primarily to organize my bookmarks semantically and across machines. For those that want to do the same, you might also be interested in Mitch Kapor’s Foxmarks.

I’m fine with finding groups on my own and I like seeing people and what they tend to tag, too. Now that I know they are available on the web site, though, I want them in the sidebar. The fact that they are indirect on the web site, not presented in the sidebar, and not proactively recommended probably explains why there are relatively few (especially compared to Twine). It would be nice, for example, to see groups and people organized along with bookmarks according to how heavily they use tags as I pivot through various facets.

So, on a feature basis, I like Zigtag more than Twine for two primary reasons:

  1. Zigtag’s Firefox plug-in is a great user interface while Twine’s book-market is awkward in every sense that matters to me.
  2. Zigtag emphasizes and leverages shared tagging of tags that have clearly documented interpretations Twine is too folksonomic.

The picture shown in this post shows that Zigtag already “knows” a lot about semantics. Part of the reason is that they must have a roomful of people watching for tags that people enter that are not defined. Quite a few of the tags I’ve added have become defined within hours (sometimes minutes) of when I enter them. We’ll see how this scales up, but I like it – a lot.

The key question for both these sites is:

Are you going to share your ontology? If not, why not? If so, when or why not now?

Note that I am not suggesting they should. But if they have a reason not to, it would be nice to understand that.

It also would be nice to know whether the effort I expend on either site will be lost if they are acquired or I want to switch. That’s how it looks at Twine today.

Zigtag exports my bookmarks. I can get them from or over to Delicious, no problem. But I want their semantics, too. I would really appreciate preservation of the text, preferably the semantics of my tags. Perhaps if my bookmarks were simply output as an OWL referencing their ontology? At least then I could move without losing the effort that I have put into them, whether folksonomic or semantic. I also want to know if their ontology is are any good and, if so, I’d appreciate export to OWL so that I could use bookmarks for other purposes that interest me.

The background issue of data portability, for bookmarks, social networks, and other personal profile data is huge.

If I had OWL export and an open ontology, I would be less worried about my investment in Zigtag or Twine. Consider Techcrunch’s recent comments:

Zigtag’s biggest obstacle is the slew of other social bookmarking sites already available (). The semantic tagging feature is fairly unique, but its appeal is still untested, especially against automated semantic taggers like Twine. Frankly, a lot of people are just going to stick with the simple but effective Delicious interface.

It’s hard to argue with the first sentence, but the second seems harsh. Twine is getting credit that it may not deserve. Also, Zigtag recommends tags, too. But the third sentence is a problem for Zigtag as well as Twine, although the latter benefits from superior PR.

Another question, of course, is how Zigtag and Twine will fare once they try to make money. Radar Networks has stated that Twine will start running ads by the end of the year. Zigtag has made no public announcements. Delicious selectively advertises (e.g., on search pages), perhaps to feed intelligence to Yahoo’s advertising network. The advertisements are so selective that the value of other book-marking sites may be limited to the intelligence that they provide to established advertising networks. If so, this will hold down valuations and slow innovation. We’ll see, but obviously, I hope not..


April 16, 2008

The Semantic Arms Race: Facebook vs. Google

As I discussed in Over $100m in 12 months backs natural language for the semantic web, Radar Networks’ Twine is one of the more interesting semantic web startups.  Their founder, Nova Spivak, is funded by Vulcan and others to provide “interest-driven [social] networking”.  I’ve been participating in the beta program at modest bandwidth for a while.  Generally, Nova’s statements about where they are and where they are going are fully supported by what I have experienced.  There are obvious weaknesses that they are improving.  Overall, the strategy of gradually bootstrapping functionality and content by controlling the ramp up in users from a clearly alpha stage implementation to what is still not quite beta (in my view) seems perfect. 

Recently, Nova recorded a few minute video in which he makes three short-term predictions:More...

  1. Yahoo’s indexing of RDF will start the Semantic Web 3.0 arms race involving Google and Microsoft.
  2. The web will transition from pages to linked data. 
  3. Facebook “has to compete” with Google.

Nova was a little on the spot in the video.  Personally, I liked his “the web becomes a database” comment more than the Berners-Lee reiteration of linked data.  The notion of the entire web being a database is the right perspective on the semantic web (i.e., RDF), in my view.  Linked data is boring (try the Tabulator if linked data excites you.)  The action (and opportunity) is doing something with it!  When asked about ten years out, Nova displayed more of his deep insight and vision, however.  (See below.)  The truth is, beyond his first one, Nova was a little on the spot.  (See for yourself in the video.)

I love the pithy #3 that he decided to throw in there.  He did not invent that on the spot but found his legs just before being asked about longer term vision.   It makes sense, of course.  Google’s attacking with Open Social (so is the rest of the world including all the bookmarkers and even Nova’s Twine).  Facebook has to shift direction and the only target big enough given its size is search and advertising.

In his longer term vision he mentions the intelligent web that reasons and helps make decisions.  

This is where the battleground is for artificial intelligence and Semantic Web 4.0 (his term for the 4th decade of the web starting circa 2020).

Personally, I think natural language should have been in his first three.  Powerset will demonstrate that and all the action around Reuter/Clearforest/Calais (which he mentions and expects Google to compete with) indicate that natural language is critical to populating the semantic web (of course we have the database approach of DBpedia and Freebase, too).  In general, people are not going tag sentences or paragraphs.  Machines will.  The only RDF people are going to add are meta-tags at the page level for search engine optimization given Yahoo’s move (and the expected response from Google that Nova mentions.)

Certainly, natural language understanding is a prerequisite for the Semantic Web 4.0.  We will be talking more and typing less long before then.

Learning from the Future with Nova Spivack from Maarten on Vimeo.

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