What The Semantic Web Needs to Really Take Off

This is a draft version.  Suggestions welcome.

Short answer: People. 

What the Semantic Web (now officially called any number of other things besides that) needs in order to become mainstream, in my opinion, is people and the connections between them. The phrase “The Social Graph” comes to mind a la Brad Fitzpatrick‘s once famous, but now all but forgotten manifesto which even Tim Berners-Lee eventually commented on. 

The Semantic Web would catch on if it was seen as even remotely useful by the young people who are most likely going to be building the next big thing on the web.

The beautiful thing about the Web2 era is that highly useful tools can sprout up overnight simply because of the desires of more or less ordinary people with no credentials or affiliation with a company. Everyone knows someone who’s a programmer.  The next big social software application just might come from the bedroom of a teenager.  There is hardly any barrier to access anymore.  This is why Web 2.0 happened.  A new tool or service doesn’t need a business plan and a data center to launch and go viral.

The trajectory of innovation throughout the last five years or so, the “Web 2.0” years, has been around capitalizing on people, the content they create, their interests, and the value added by crowd-sourcing.  The benefits in the social media space are clear from both the perspective of normal end-users, as well as giant companies. Mostly, these benefits are about filtering noise and finding relevance on the user-side and on the giant company side, gathering metrics, targeting messages and acquiring free content.   The SemWeb standards have a lot to offer the Social Media realm, dare I say, probably even more than CSS with rounded corners does (I hope I’m not offending anyone here).  

But the way things are today, for most programmers, implementing SemWeb standards is a lot of extra work with no immediate benefit. Why not just use MySQL or cook up a new XML format?  

So why are these standards being completely ignored by the coders on the street?   RSS took off.  Why not FOAF? I think it’s because there’s no useful directory of URIs for people.  There are lots of SEmWeb geeks who have URIs, but the kids on MySpace and FaceBook don’t have URIs or FOAF files.  And those kids’ eyeballs and participation are worth real money!

One fine day, back in 2006, Tim Berners-Lee came down from the mountain and gave us a commandment (or at least he logged into his blog and made a suggestion):

“Do you have a URI for yourself? If you are reading this blog and you have the ability to publish stuff on the web, then you can make a FOAF page, and you can give yourself a URI.”

Then, apparently fifteen minutes after the first post was published, Berners-Lee really got at the importance of URIs in a post called Backward and Forward links in RDF just as important:

“One meme of RDF ethos is that the direction one choses for a given property is arbitrary: it doesn’t matter whether one defines “parent” or “child”; “employee” or “employer”. This philosophy (from the Enquire design of 1980) is that one should not favor one way over another. One day, you may be interested in following the link one way, another day, or somene else, the other way.”

For those of you who don’t yet understand the idea of the Semantic Web, here’s the deal.  If there’s one web-address that represents each person, place thing or idea, it becomes possible to crawl the Web (documents as well as databases) looking for links to that person place or thing. And if those links contain tags which specify the meaning of the links, the web-at-large begins to look more like a giant database.  This is the “Web of Data” (in contrast to the “Web of Documents” we know and love).  This is what people call The Semantic Web. So what’s stopping people from being in the “Web of Data” (AKA Semantic Web)?  Like Tim Berners-Lee suggested, we need URIs for people.  That’s where it all starts.  Once there are URIs for people, and there are semantic links (ones that contain tags explaining what they mean) pointing at the those URIs, we can start making tools that use that data.

This is a fairly simple concept.  And Berners-Lee makes it sound simple enough.  Sure, we’ll all just give ourselves URIs and viala, the Social Graph will go Semantic.  That sounds great but there are a few problems with leaving it at that.

  • Most ordinary people do not have websites or hosting of their own and instead rely on Social Networking Services’ profile pages for their web presence.  This means that most people have no way of easily publishing themselves to the Web of Data.
  • For-Profit Social Networking services have a conflict of interest with regard to providing the Web-at-large with useful, granular “Social Graph” data. Instead we see APIs that give approved developers limited access to data.  No love for the average joe like me that is not a programmer.     
  • The Web currently has no trustworthy repository for facts about ordinary people.  Trustworthy means not-for-profit at the very least.  The closest thing we have is Wikipedia, but Wikipedia does not allow entries on ordinary, non-notable people.  (keep in mind that the Wikipedia publishes the facts in its ‘info boxes’ in RDF one of the core Standards of what we have been calling ‘The Semantic Web’)  

We need to start thinking of the Web more like we think of a Public Library, but completely decentralized and with infinite shelf-space.  I think WikiMedia, the organization behind the Wikipedia is the best bet for a trusted librarian for all the information about normal people.

I think what is really needed right now is a non-profit run directory of people, possibly even modeled after the Wikipedia, especially when it comes to the concurrent DBPedia project, which publishes the contents of  Wikipedia facts to the Semantic Web.  Really I think because of WikiMedia’s established trust, they would be the ideal organization to do this.  Wikipedia could simply have another layer which reveals non-notable results or ‘all results.’

How You Treat Strangers Makes a Huge Difference

The following is a little illustration in the form of a hypothetical scenario of why I think that individual behavior makes a big difference.  I end up giving this example to just about everyone that I end up discussing my personal philosophy with.  The hypothetical scenario is not something I invented, but I can’t remember where I got the idea.  I’ve surely altered it a bit but the point is what is important.

[beginning of story]

Imagine a small town.  In this small town, everyone has more or less the same ideas about how to behave and treat one another.

In this town, it’s understood that if you were to find money on the ground outside the local grocery, you would turn it in because that’s what everyone has always done.  And in turn, if  a citizen of the town got home from the market and realized that she didn’t have in her pocket the twenty-dollar bill she had left the store with, she would likely call or return to the store, quite confident that one of her neighbors would have noticed the bill on the ground in the parking lot and turned it in to the management of the store.  

Now imagine that you [addressed to you the reader] moved to this nice little town.  And one day you come across a twenty dollar bill on the ground outside of the local grocery.  You pick it up and stick it in your pocket.  That’s how things are done where you’re from.  You just got lucky!

A while later, one of the town natives calls over to the store and is quite surprised to find out that no one has turned in the money he surely must have dropped between the market and his car.  

At this point, in his mind, it is no longer necessarily an active custom of the culture of the town to turn in found money.  In fact, later on, he reinforces this by not turning in money that he finds outside the market since he no longer believes that it is the normal thing to do.

Since you moved to this town, a chain-reaction has begun that will change what people think is the ‘right’ or ‘normal’ thing to do when they come across their neighbor’s accidentally misplaced money.

[end of story]

I know this is a fairly silly narrative, and I swear it comes across as much more believable and compelling in verbal communication, and I’m sure I could have written it more interestingly, but bare with me,

The idea is this:

The number of interactions we have with other humans in our lives that give us a real sense of how people behave is small.  If you’ve ever visited a foreign place for a few days and left with the idea that “The people there are so friendly and helpful..” remember that it was probably only one or two interactions that gave you that idea.  Maybe you were confused about a train map and someone offered to explain it to you. Maybe it was something else like that.

Later today, or tomorrow or next week, you might see someone who obviously could benefit from the help of a stranger, but you might be inclined to not help them because that’s not really how we do it around here.  But if you do help them, in their mind, it’s likely that it will become the way we do it around here, and in turn they will be more likely to do the same kind of thing for others. 

I believe that a lot of the time, people behave according to how they think other people behave.  The good news (or bad news) is that the opportunities that people have to really get a sense of how people behave are few and far between.  

So in the next 24 hours, something you do in your interaction with a complete stranger could actually have a fairly large ripple effect.  

You can change how people act just by treating people differently.