Mark Birbeck's Blog

On agile, big data and the semantic web.

Dog Bites Man in Race to Semantic Web

Facebook’s adoption of RDFa as a way to provide extra features to its users has met with an ecstatic welcome by some, and suspicion and criticism by others. Here we discuss whether some in the semantic web community may be being too hard on their efforts.

Ten years ago, did you expect there ever to be a semantic web?

How you answer that question will depend a lot on what you’ve been doing during that decade. If you don’t know what RDF or DARPA are, then my guess is that ten years ago you’d have been in the ‘Tim Berners-Lee is a dreamer’ camp.

If you did know about RDF back then, you’d have rather quaintly been saying that all we need to do to get semantic web lift-off, is to persuade people to code their data up using RDF/XML. (As if people didn’t have lives to lead, or something.)

Fast forward to today, and ask the same question.

My guess is that today, many more people will answer that question positively, and agree that the semantic web is a viable proposition – perhaps even about to happen in the way that its visionaries had always hoped it would.

Of course, we didn’t get here in a smooth way, because that would imply that we knew all the answers in advance. We got where we are today – and by ‘we’ I mean us, humans…everyone – by trying things that almost worked but didn’t quite, by meeting people from different disciplines and swapping ideas, by speaking, writing articles, creating code, doing PhDs in triple-store performance and inference, and generally experimenting. And we did all of these things (and more) because we knew instinctively that we could create a web that was even more powerful than the fantastical beast we already had.

As you’d expect, sometimes, some of us did the right thing for the wrong reasons. But that’s ok, because unless you think that there is something or someone out there keeping score, then ultimately, whatever the motivation, it all helps.

Facebook

So when I read Alex Iskold on how Facebook’s goal “is not to create a better, more structured Web” (Does Facebook Really Want a Semantic Web?), I couldn’t help but wonder what the story is. Actually, more than that, I’m asking myself exactly how do some of the very clever people who have contributed stirling work to the semantic web actually think that the real semantic web (the one that everyone will use) is going to come about – other than in a messy, weaving, ‘one step forwards, two steps back’ kind of a way. (See also Ian Davis’ Google’s RDFa a Damp Squib for the same take, almost exactly a year ago.)

This structured web is just a tool, a means to many ends. So it will always be the case that anyone who uses it will be doing so for their own reasons, and not “to create a better, more structured Web”. Selling products, marking up election results, identifying genomes, categorising research papers – rarely will these things be done with the primary goal of a “more structured web”, for its own sake, and we should be grateful for that.

The web was already messy

But purity of motivation aside, I think there are other problems with Alex’s article – if we’re going to tilt at windmills, we might want to establish who owns them first. For example, is it really Facebook’s fault that a “growing amount of user profile data is full of duplicates and ambiguity”, as Alex says? Can we really blame them that the “[a]bsence of semantics creates fragmented connections and noise around the Web”?

Don’t get me wrong, the people who know how to do the right thing should continue to do the right thing, and they should also be on hand to persuade the Facebooks of this world to do the right thing, too. (And the Googles and the Yahoo!s aswell, because they didn’t get it right first time, either.) But the semantic web community also needs to take a hard look at what it is asking people to do, and constantly look for opportunities to simplify its standards.

Out of the shadows

When Alex says that Facebook’s proposals were “targeted more towards PR than correctness” I have flashbacks to ten years ago when the mere mention of RDF would invoke derision (literally). I wonder what we would have thought back then, if someone had told us that some enormous companies with millions of users would be adopting semantic technologies, and trying to get good PR for it. We’d no doubt have dismissed that as a “man bites dog”, story.

Whatever their motivations, and regardless of whether they got it perfectly right or just pretty close, Facebook really are actively contributing to a “better, more structured Web”.

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