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news and thoughts on and around the development of the iCite net
by Jay Fienberg

The Web is semantic, the Semantic Web is not

posted: May 23, 2004 3:24:06 PM

Maybe the title should include the word "yet"at the end—I don't want to be a total nay-sayer here. But, I've started thinking that the concept of the Semantic Web lacks a key, web-like feature, that already makes the stupid Web so semantically rich.

And, that feature is: a dynamic web of contexts in which people recognize semantic nuance through relatively ambiguous statements. I think the equation I'm suggesting might be: shades of meaning (ambiguity) + contexts = nuanced semantics.

So, I am suggesting that "meaning" (at least the meaning that people appreciate) might better emerge out of a tangled (illogical) web of often ambiguous statements than out of controlled vocabularies of cleanly (logically) connected statements. I know this isn't 100% true, but what I want to suggest is that the appeal of the Web is in this nuance, and that the Semantic Web may not be a system that adds a lot to this nuance.

The Semantic Web may well add utility. And, it may add nuance too. But, I don't think it will itself surpass or replace the need to express things as they are currently expressed on the Web, which is a surprisingly human-ish mess that so much of us connect through.

As an example of what I'm getting at, consider FOAF. I think anyone who has worked on or around FOAF can attest that the nuanced meaning of what FOAF is and what it is about is mostly accessible through the stupid Web. Whatever is in the FOAF spec, the meaning of FOAF statements might be better understood through a web of ambiguous statements than through the connections defined in the formal schemas or ontologies.

I don't know if anyone would suggest that FOAF would be better or as good without all of the unstructured "stuff" stated about it. Some might suggest that such stuff would be better if it were formally semantically structured. But, I'm not so sure!

So, one big thing that I wonder about is whether the development of schemas and ontologies is itself web-like. (And, that is part of what the iCite net might someday explore.) In other words, are Semantic Web structures actually web-like in the sense that anyone can, by "linking" to them, extend their meaning? Does the Semantic Web define "meaning" in an anti-Web fashion?

As usual, I've written this as a contrarian only with the hope that it might contribute to thinking and dialog about various things people (including myself) are working on. Actually, I specifically agree with a comment Tim Berners-Lee recently made (read at Danny Ayer's, quoted from Paul Ford's good article, Berners-Lee Keeps WWW2004 Focused on Semantic Web):

"People ask," he said, "so what's the Semantic Web killer app going to be? That's not the right question." The real proof of the Semantic Web, he said, is when new connections are made, and new links between information emerge.

In my librarian days, I created a library catalog application that used formal schemas, controlled vocabularies, and ontologies (all proprietary—based in a RDBMS). It did a lot of useful things that could only be done with those kind of structures. And, it did allow for new links between information to emerge.

But, those new links also required that the librarians' to have more nuanced information about the information. In other words, we always just ended up with a larger vocabulary outside the system—with a larger set of shades of meaning that needed to be expressed. You know, as they say, NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Our chief weapon is surprise...surprise and fear...fear and surprise.... Our two weapons are fear and surprise...and ruthless efficiency.... Our *three* weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency...and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope.... Our *four* *Amongst* our weapons.... Amongst our weaponry...are such elements as fear, surprise.... I'll come in again.

Also relevant, see Seairth Jacobs' quadruples, not triples (via Bill de hÓra's Thus sprach metadata, which also has relevant comments). And, I found Timothy Falconer's the meaning of semantic to be useful too.

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Comment by: Chris Dent ·
posted: May 28, 2004 4:15:24 AM

It's nice to read this. I agree that meaning ("at least the meaning that people appreciate") emerges from the tanglings of ambiguity. And I like it that way. You create new meaning that way, rather than simply reveal what was hiding in what's there.

I was at www2004 and I had many of my attitudes about the semantic web adjusted. What's clear is that many of the people invovled have not done a very good job of tuning their statements to be well understood by others. They make it sound like will we know such amazing stuff as a result of the semnatic web.

I don't think that's true: we'll just be able to see what's already there, better. That was made more clear to me after listening to people talk over a compressed five days of exposure.

Seeing what's already there, better, is a _fantastic_ notion and it's good that it is being pursued. Now to adjust the marketing slightly.

I found Tim's keynote speech to be rather embarassing. I guess he was trying to be funny and casual, but to me it just felt like a stumbling ramble about mostly nothing, punctuated by requests for people to get their homework (implementing certain things) done soon.

What made the existing web great was that it mostly emerged, from simple stuff. The semantic web is being designed, built and (this is the problem) imposed.

Comment by: Jay Fienberg ·
posted: May 28, 2004 10:53:11 AM

Thanks for your comment Chris—very interesting to hear your of your experience at www2004.

I basically figure that most people interested in the semantic web, by themselves, are something like me: they see opportunities to make the web more expressive.

But, I think there is big difference between that desire in individuals and the institutionalization of that desire into a system (in this Semantic Web case, of specification development). Even the best people can end-up in a quagmire of diminishing returns in that kind of institutional context.

As Shelley Powers once suggested, she is into the semantic web, and THE Sematic Web is something different.

Comment awaiting approval
posted: Mar 19, 2006 11:58:25 AM

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