A semantic conversation

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

When Clay Shirky’s paper on Semantic Weblogging first came out and I saw the people referencing it, I thought, “Oh boy! Fun conversation!” But that was before I saw that many of the links to Clay’s paper were from what are called ‘b-links’ I believe – links in side columns that basically have little or no annotation.

I guess what a b-link says is that the person found the subject material interesting, but we don’t know if they agree or disagree. An unfortunate side effect of these new weblogging bonbons is that it’s hard to have a conversation when the only statement a person makes is, “I’m here. I saw.”

What led to this is Sam Ruby continued his discussion about Clay’s paper, saying Links are unquestionably the greatest source for semantic data within weblogs. What we see is that even with something that we all know and understand such as the simple link, you can’t pull semantics out when none is put into in the first place.

Still, not all links were b-links. Tim Bray talks about Semantic Web from the big picture, and references big corporations with big XBRL (Extensible Business Reporting Language) files and all that juicy corporate data found at and To him, the Semantic Web will only come about if there is a mass dispersion of data, and in this case, dispersion of data from Big Companies.

But the original Web didn’t start big, it started small. It began with masses of little web sites, with bright pink or heavily graphical backgrounds and really ugly fonts and some of us even used the BLINK tag. Remember animated GIFs? Remember how excited you got with an animated GIF? That’s nothing compared to the link, though, our very first, link. Do you remember when you lost your link virginity?

We swooned when someone told us about a ‘web form’, and this processing we could do called “CGI”. And then someone posted the first picture of a naked girl, and that was all she wrote.

Tim, man, you got to get down, son. Scrabble in the hard pack with the rest of us plain folk. Yank off that tie, and put on some Bermudas and hang with the hometown gang for a bit. You been with the Big Bad Business Asses too much – you forgot your roots.

What I do agree with in Clay’s paper is that the semantic web is going to come from the bottom up. It is going to come from RSS, and from FOAF, and from all the other efforts currently on the web (I need to start putting a list of these together). It’s going to start when we take an extra one minute when we post to choose a category or add a few keywords to better identify the subject of our posts. It will flourish when more people start taking a little bit of extra time to add a little bit more information because someone has demonstrated that the time will be worth it.

It will come about when people see the benefits of smarter data. Small pieces, intelligently joined.

Which leads to the good Doctor, one of the two Influential Bloggers that Tim references – David expanded on his earlier comment about Clay’s paper by saying:

I don’t think Clay is arguing that all metadata is bad. Rather, he’s saying that it doesn’t scale. Yes, the insurance industry might be able to construct a taxonomy that works for it, but the Semantic Web goes beyond the local. It talks about how local taxonomies can automagically knit themselves together. The problem with the Semantic Web is, from my point of view, that it can’t scale because taxonomies are tools, not descriptions, and thus don’t knit real well.

To back this up David references the problems with SGML – how we can’t find or agree on the ideal DTDs to pull this all together. This is an expansion of his agreement with Clay’s response on Worldviews and compatibility. I’ve worked on two industry data modeling efforts: PDES (manufacturing) and POSC (petroluem and energy). I know what David is talking about – it is hard to get people to agree on data.

This is a name, you say. I say, a name of what. You say, a name of a person. I say, a first name? A last? A proper name? A name that’s an identifier? A maiden name? A dead person? A live one? An important person? By this time you’re frustrated and screaming back: It’s just a damn name! Why are you making it so complicated?

I do hear what David is saying. But the thing with the semantic web, though, is that it’s already started.

This group can go off and do their thing, and we can do ours and someday we may need to map the data, and that’s cool. In the meantime though thanks to the use of a model and namespaces, you can have your name, and I can have mine and we don’t have to stop working to get agreement first to exist within the same space. When we get to that point where we do need to work together, then we’ll sit and talk – but its not going to be detrimental to what’s happened in the past. If we find that my postcon:source is the same as your bifcom:target then we’ll just define this little rule that says, ‘these are equivalent’. But I’ll still generate postcon:source and you can still generate bifcom:target.

(*bang* *bang* *bang*

Do you hear that sound? That’s me banging my head against a door. And no, the hollow sound is from the door, not my head. There’s a reason we keep wanting to use one model for our work – so that someday when we want to make our data work together, it is just as simple as defining that one silly little rule.)

You know what my definition of semantic web is? You’ve all heard this before. Even Tim Berners-Lee has heard this from a scathing comment he made in the W3C Tag mailing list, once. My idea of semantic web is if I can look for a poem that uses a metaphor of bird as freedom, and get back poems that have bird as metaphor for freedom. But you know, I don’t have to go everywhere in the web to look for this – if I could just do this at something like, or among the poetry weblogs I know, I’d be content.

I don’t have to scour the complete world wide web today. I don’t have to get every interpretation of every poem that has ever used bird as metaphor today. I can start with a small group of people convinced that this is the way to go. And eventually, other poetry fans, and high school sophmores, will also see the benefit of doing a little bit of extra work when putting that poem online, aided and abetted by helpful tools. It’s from this tiny little acorn, big mother oaks grow.

How do you think RSS started? Or FOAF for that matter?

I’ll let you in on a little secret: my semantic web is not The Semantic Web. They won’t give nobel prizes for it, and it won’t be a deafening flash or a blinding roar. It will just make my life a bit easier than what what it is now. Some folks who like the Semantic Web won’t necessarily like or agree with my simple, little small ’s’, semantic, small ‘w’ web. But I don’t care, and neither does it.

In this semantic web, people like Danny Ayers with his good humored patience persistence supporting RDF and the ’semantic web, will have just as much an impact as any Tim, Dave, or Clay.

One last thing: I wanted to also comment on Dare Obasanjo’s post on this issue. Dare is saying that we don’t need RDF because we can use transforms between different data models; that way everyone can use their own XML vocabulary. This sounds good in principle, but from previous experience I’ve had with this type of effort in the past, this is not as trivial as it sounds. By not using an agreed on model, not only do you now have to sit down and work out an agreement as to differences in data, you also have to work out the differences in the data model, too. In other words – you either pay upfront, once; or you keep paying in the end, again and again. Now, what was that about a Perpetual Motion Machine, Dare?

However, don’t let me stop you from using XML and your own home grown data model and rules and regs. But we won’t let this stop us from using RDF and RDF/XML.

The point I’m trying to make is this: the semantic web is here. It snuck in quietly while the rest of us were debating. It is viral, slowly putting out little tendrils of applicability throughout the web. The only problem we’re really having is that we’re not recognizing it now because no huge rocket burst into the air going “Semantic Web is here! Semantic Web is here!”

I think what we’re missing is the semantic web equivalent of the animated GIF. Something with lots of moving parts so that people know it’s working.

(P.S. Liz> has started pulling all of the links on this issue into one permanent record.)

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