Friend of a Friend (FOAF)

April 11, 2008 at 10:30 pm Leave a comment

Today’s article is on the Semantic Web and a new way to capture meta-data about one of the things that matters most on the web – you. With the advent of social networks such as MySpace, Facebook and others, many people will tell you that content is king. Content is what matters because that is one of the core principles of Web 2.0 – opening up the data (content) to the people. I agree that content is definitely important. But what is just as important is the set of people that are a part of these social networks who are creating and consuming that content, and FOAF is a way to provide metadata about people and capture pertinent information such as their name, age, their interests, their friends, etc. Whereas you can create your personal home page and put up your picture, your name, your interests, etc (for eg, in Facebook), the problem with this is that whereas it is great for human processing (i.e., I happen to browse to your page, I can read all the details that you have put up), it’s meaningless to a machine (i.e., no automated processing can occur even though there is so much pertinent information on your page about yourself, your interests, your background, etc). The goal of FOAF is to connect people with people in a machine readable way so that machines can process your information and link to other pieces of information about you and your friends and create meaning out of all the data that sprawls the web.

FOAF would be very useful for many different concepts and companies, especially a company like LinkedIn for example whose bread and butter is linking people. I will not go into details of a FOAF document here since I don’t want to get too technical, but instead, I will talk about FOAF from a business perspective, i.e.: what are the applications of FOAF in the real world? Basically, FOAF can be leveraged anywhere there is a need to connect people to other people. For eg, I will be attending the Software 2008 conference in Vegas at the end of this month. A main aim of attending a large conference is possibly to meet and socialize with other people, possibly who have similar interests as myself. If the organizers were able to capture not only my personal information using FOAF, but were able to also capture information on the past and future conferences that I plan to attend (and did the same for other attendees), then I could see a visual depiction of other people attending Software 2008, browse their contact information and also see who has attended the same conferences I have in the past or who might be attending a conference with me in the future.

Similarly, imagine gleaning my personal information from my FOAF file and providing personalized ads or offers to me when I browse Facebook or Amazon.com. Today, every site that wants to offer such levels of personalization has to learn these things about me as I browse their sites and gradually build up enough information about me to show me more meaningful offers. With FOAF, I could enter a lot of this information into my FOAF file just once and then these e-commerce or social networking sites could use this information over and over.

Another use for FOAF is to aggregate data across the web. For example, you might have a Facebook account, a MySpace account and a LinkedIn account just due to the fact that you prefer to keep your business information separate from your personal information or that some of your friends use MySpace whereas others prefer Facebook. So none of these accounts really gives a complete picture of the people that you know or your background. FOAF can be used to aggregate all the information about you from these multiple accounts and create a single version of truth so to speak.

Whereas FOAF is an emerging concept and definitely catching on, the truth of the matter is that just like other components of the Semantic Web, FOAF too suffers from lack of user friendliness. Whereas there are front ends being created to auto-generate FOAF files, it’s usage and applications are still limited due to the geek factor of FOAF, coupled with the fact that Web 3.0 (Semantic Web) is still in it’s very nascent stages and people are still trying to figure out what this all means and how they would use it. The average 20 year old John Doe can create a FOAF file with their data in it, but then what? What do they do with this FOAF file? None of their friends might use FOAF, so in the end, it’s pretty useless to them to have a FOAF file if their friends on MySpace don’t even care to know what to do with it and there are not many applications out there processing their FOAF file. Therein lies the problem with Semantic Web today – there are many companies trying to build semantically rich applications, but it is still early and there is not enough traction in the market to get the attention of 20 year old John Doe.  But things are changing slowly and more and more applications and companies are focusing on FOAF and Web 3.0 in general. For example, Google’s Social Graph API can use FOAF to create JSON structures.

I’ll end this post with a discussion around the limitations in FOAF:

  • Batch Mode: For performance reasons, the FOAF data is not processed dynamically, but more so in a batch mode. This can lead to problems when someone updates their FOAF file. This is apparently being addressed by the FOAF community.
  • Trust: You might tell me in your FOAF file that you are the CEO of ABC Inc, or that Bill Gates is your buddy, but how do we authenticate that information?
  • Parsers: Parsers show a graphical view of FOAF files, but current parsers cannot show a graphical representation of newer extensions being added to FOAF.
  • Security: FOAF files store your personal data, and as such, security becomes a key issue. Applications using FOAF files need to consider the different data security mechanisms that they need to use to protect user data.

That’s about it for this post. Semantic Web usage is definitely on the rise and in the foreseeable future, I think that the Semantic Web will be just as ubiquitous as the WWW.

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