November 27, 2003
The Stumbling Block
Putting aside for a moment all this pie-in-the-sky, we-are-the-world stuff, let’s switch to more immediate concerns. We were warned by our keynote at the conference against overhyping our efforts, and he’s right. The more we reflect and rhapsodize about our vision, the more we’ll tune out the press, and thereby the decision makers. Better to sneak up on them … we should underpromise and overdeliver.
But there’s a bigger reason to shut up about it: I think in the short run the Semantic Web is more likely to fail than succeed. I went down to Sanibel to see if “it’s soup yet”, to see if the technology is mature enough to build real products with. My tentative answer is “yes”, but with an asterisk. Hell, it’s not just an asterisk, it’s a huge gaping chasm of doubt. No, not “do we need it.” We need it. No, not “will it work.” It will work.
Here’s the real stumbling block: getting people to annotate their data. The biggest questions in a product pitch should be, “Will they do it?” and “Why?”
A few presenters did talk about this. One suggested the “Two G Scale”: one side Gurus, the other, Grannies. He talked about closing the “the semantic gap.” The next presenter talked about motivating end-users to annotate by providing instant gratification. The efforts they mention are certainly steps in the right direction. The fact they’re even working on the problem is encouraging. And I do agree that “a little semantics goes a long way.”
But here’s the thing: most people (and I do mean most) keep all their email in their inbox. Before the Semantic Web can come close to delivering on its promise, we need to find ways to convince non-technical types into wanting to think abstractly. Academics, developers, and businessfolk are unusually organized compared to “the rest of us,” which is why this may be hard to see at first. Hell, forget annotation. We’ve got to find compelling and obvious reasons for them to want to use metadata.
My focus is squarely on the Granny side, and it’s not just cause I like Grannies. It’s because software that Grannies can use is software that all of us can use. The clarity of an obvious interface is a real competitive advantage. Not convinced? Compare Yahoo to Google.