timothy falconer's semantic weblog
Big Fractal Tangle

getting the semweb exactly wrong

Reading “Ambient Findability“, I came across Peter Morville’s discussion of the Semantic Web, which references Shirky’s lame criticism of it (“The Semantic Web is a machine for creating syllogisms”).

He also quotes David Weinberger:

I fear that the Semantic Web will go the way of SGML and for basically the same reason: normalization of metadata works real well in confined applications where the payoff is high, control is centralized and discipline can be enforced. In other words: not the Web.

Reading such comments confounds me, since they’ve got it *exactly* wrong. The Semantic Web approach is LOOSE, not normalized. The beauty of RDF and OWL is that you can take messy incompatible schemas and interconnect them after the fact, giving structure to what was once incompatible. The semweb community has always taken a “build them as islands, then stitch them together” approach, as they really do understand the need for looseness.

How did this happen? Why is the Semantic Web so misunderstood by so many? Here’s my guess: In the beginning, lot’s of really smart semweb researchers looked at the Web and said, “What a mess. How can we tie this all together in a webby way that lets us solve real problems?” RDF and OWL were born.

As the Semantic Web grew, much of the talk was of ontologies. Given the very specific nature of most of the early problem domains (medical, etc), an outsider could easily see all of it as too *disciplined*. People like Shirky and Weinberger came into the middle of the discussion, when everyone was talking about how to make it rigorous. They missed the early part when talk was about how to make it loose.

What didn’t help is that most of the talking was being done by standards body formalists, who live and breath structure and specification to a degree the likes of which only dictionary writers can appreciate. The outsiders listened in and heard extremely-specific-talk, and made the assumption that these formalists were making something which was too confining for the Web. This is the tragedy: the pundits think the semweb is brittle, when it’s exactly the opposite. It’s the very thing we need to add structure without losing looseness.

So, here we are, watching terms like “Web 2.0” and “folksonomies” get traction instead, simply because pundits (who can write clearly) understand them more easily, and don’t need to know Backus-Naur Form to grok what’s going on. RDF and OWL serve the same purpose, but most of the semweb work now being done is in more rigorous domains, so it seems like it’s only appropriate to academics and large monolithic software efforts. So we’re stuck with loose semi-structured solutions instead of semweb technologies.

At some point, the Web 2.0 crowd are gonna hit the same wall the semwebbers hit a while back, which lead to the RDF/OWL approach in the first place. They’re gonna say, “What a mess. We’ve got all this metadata and it’s an incredible pain to do anything with it.” Maybe then, the Shirky’s of the world will say, “Ah ha! The Semantic Web isn’t about syllogisms, it’s about STITCHING.”

But by then it’ll be too late, so my renewed goal for 2006 is to continue explaining the virtues of semweb technologies to non-formalists, before the world gets saddled with some folksy half-baked semi-standard that does half of what RDF and OWL do, but in a way that makes it impossible to do anything useful down the road.

As I said at the start of this blog, we need a better whirlpool rap.

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