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if Semantic Web is the medium, what is the message? May 20, 2006

Posted by dfhuynh in research, semantic web.

A colleague of mine is in the habit of speaking in URLs. Often for points he wishes to illustrate, he would dig out from the vast Web a URL and give us that, instead. I’ve jokingly noted that ours is turning into a URL-speaking society, but there is truth in that. The Web, from one point of perspective, is a rudimentary global language in which the URLs are the nouns. And everything else necessary for a language is missing.

Then comes the Semantic Web.

Designed to fill in the slots for everything that the Web is missing, the Semantic Web is a hot medium. It leaves little for the reader’s imagination. Indeed, it’s supposed to be so perfectly specified that machines can reliably act on it.

Web 2.0, on the other hand, is a cool medium that calls for participation, for social interaction, for interpretation and involvement. Tagging, blogging, etc. all require heavy participation and interpretation, which makes Web 2.0 a lot more congruent with our cool electric society today. Hence, Web 2.0 has easily taken off and Semantic Web is left in the lab cage.

Perhaps just like many great ideas before it, the Semantic Web is here at the wrong time, or at least cast in the wrong way to our particular society at its particular state.


So then, if Semantic Web is the medium, what is its message? The message that is understandable by the electric man, connected with cell phones, blogs, tags,…, who is becoming once again the tribal man as Marshall McLuhan predicted.

In many ways, the Semantic Web is like the printing technology (movable types). Whole books can be beautifully, precisely, and multiply produced by stringing together repeatable, uniform units that are carefully placed. Similarly, complex topics can now be described (supposedly) precisely by connecting together as graphs of URIs (supposedly) carefully coined. The similarity between print and Semantic Web is clear when one looks at how sophisticated Semantic Web UIs are rendered: views are recursively embedded one within another as the machine reaches out into the graph and pulls in more and more data. This gave rise to my obsession with the “fine granularity” that RDF affords when I started my research on the Haystack project. That is, just as typography is about repeatability, RDF is about recursability.

Just as print, according to McLuhan, turned the tribal man into the individualistic man, capable of entertaining thoughts outside communal gatherings, Semantic Web is an individualistic technology. It is about gathering information from external sources and then interpreting it in one’s own way for one’s own individual needs. That is, roll your own semantics on someone else’s data. This is why my Piggy Bank research has been so instrumental for understanding the Semantic Web for many, and why Simile‘s attempts at a screen-scraper ecology and Semantic Bank deployments have been less than successful.

Just like movable type made words more affordable, the Semantic Web will make data more affordable as data can be more easily re-used independent of its origin and original purpose. And just as printed words are mediated by paper and ink, Semantic Web data is necessarily mediated by the machine that gather, interpret, and combine disparate Semantic Web data into a coherent soup upon each individual’s demand.

That is all to say, the Semantic Web is like typography for this primitive, global language called the Web. And we are still searching for its typesetting machine.


When the Semantic Web starts to mature, the artists will move in and explore this new medium. Expect machine processible semantic puns. Expect graph arts.



1. Johan Sundström - August 15, 2006

You have been doing great leg work with Piggy Bank, and I believe even better with Sifter, if perhaps less open to or geared at erecting other tools atop of it (for its designated end users, anyway).

I would be very interested in hearing more about the perhaps somewhat painful but still learned lessons from trying to establish a data liberation ecology around these projects, about the sociologic, community building side to it, whether just speculation, theorizing and gut feelings about what went wrong or didn’t strike a gold vein why or more backed up. I believe I have a few ideas of my own, but it would be very interesting to pick up on what thoughts have been brewing in your teams; pointers very welcome, if I just haven’t found where such discussions have been held.

2. cris54 - August 28, 2006

You have one very interesting and very informative blog. The only web I know so far is the schematic webbing. He he… so this one is different. They just sound alike but totally diffrent from each other. Keep it up, good job!

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