Sometimes online culture really makes me wonder. This past week the Twittering world was up in arms about a minor change to the functionality of the tool with regards to replies. I’m not going to go into details, the info is all here, and here, and here. Feel free to wear yourself out with it.

What’s most amazing to me is that while everyone was busy complaining about Twitter, two incredible things happened that almost nobody mentioned.

First, the long-anticipated Wolfram|Alpha semantic search tool was released. Wolfram|Alpha is the vision of scientist Stephen Wolfram. His idea was to “make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone.” In plain English, what he’s trying to do is link all the data in the world together, to create a system of which you can ask nearly any question. The system is designed to work more the way humans think – by creating relationships between seemingly disparate data. For example, let’s say you want to know the nutritional value of your breakfast. Currently, there are tools out there that will help you calculate that. Google will do it. But the problem is, you can’t just ask Google, “How many calories are in my bowl of cornflakes and glass of orange juice?”. If you don’t believe me, go try it. You’ll get results for Orange juice, mostly. You may get some results for Corn Flakes too. But you won’t get your definitive answer without much clicking and calculating.

Wolfram|Alpha hopes to change all that. If you go there and type in “calories in 1 bowl of corn flakes + a glass of OJ”, not only will you get the total number of calories, but you’ll get a nutritional breakdown of protein, carbs, fat, and vitamins of the entire meal.

This changes everything – and if you don’t agree with me, read on.

The second amazing thing that happened this week while everyone was otherwise distracted with their twittering was that Google also announced their first step towards the Semantic Web. Yes, Google. Called Rich Snippets, the concept is to enhance search results with linked data. Currently, when you look up information on a new restaurant in town, you might get a web site link, or a Google map and phone number. If you do a second search for reviews, you may get some links to reviews. You will have to go seek out and look at their menu online to find out if their prices are affordable. You can go to a specific site such as Restaurantica and find even more information. So now you are 4 or 5 searches into things just to figure out if you might want to eat there.

The plan with Rich Snippets is to allow for all of this information to appear in one search result. You simply search for the restaurant’s name and the results will include reviews, price points, locations and perhaps even a direct link to make a reservation. Linked data will make it all possible.

But…but I went and tried it and it doesn’t work very well. This technology sucks!

You know what? You’re right. It’s far, far, FAR from perfect. Half the time you go on Wolfram|Alpha and you’ll and error message that says the system is over capacity (though the W|A scientists do a have a sense of humour – the error message is reminiscent of HAL from “2001 A Space Odyssey”). Google Rich Snippets technology is reliant upon web designers embedding special mark up codes within their content that will allow Google’s linking algorithms to grab the data. That means gaining buy-in and changing behaviours of the development community – no easy feat.

But…but I don’t need to worry about this stuff yet. Besides….Twitter!

Is the technology a long way out? It’s not as far away as you think. Remember way back when online video was a challenge to deal with? Nobody wanted to use it because it sucked bandwidth, was choppy and low quality at best, and crashed more browsers than it displayed in. That was waaaay back in 2003. YouTube was launched in 2005. That was only 4 years ago, for anyone who may have lost count. Now, how many online videos have you watched so far today? My point exactly.

The point is, Web 3.0 is here. Yes, yes…social media is glorious, fabulous, and has fundamentally changed the way we socialize, communicate, do business and interact.

But, the Semantic Web is going to be an even bigger shift. If you are even remotely involved or interested in technology, and especially if your business relies on it, do your homework and learn about this stuff NOW. Because in 2 years or less, online communication will have reached critical mass and will be as ubiquitous as the telephone. The world will have moved on from Twitter and Facebook.

The next big thing is not social media. Want to be the next thought leader? Then spend your time thinking about this:

The next big thing is information and how we use it.

That is all.