Semantic Web Rising

This was an interesting week. Although the big story was AOL’s acquisition of Bebo, another story was brewing. There was another story brewing, with perhaps even larger implications, the semantic web is rising – fast.

Via TechCrunch:

Yahoo’s support for semantic web standards like RDF and microformats is exactly the incentive websites need to adopt them. Instead of semantic silos scattered across the Web (think Twine), Yahoo will be pulling all the semantic information together when available, as a search engine should. Until now, there were few applications that demanded properly structured data from third parties. That changes today.

For those of you that are not familiar with the concept of the Semantic Web, the basic idea is to transform the web into a platform for structured data services. Instead of a developer having to write scripts to scrape pages and/or develop sophisticated machine learning algorithms to retrieve data, they can simply call structured APIs and be SURE that they are gathering the right data. This change would result in the ability for developers to create a new breed of intelligent applications that would rock the web as we know it.

This was our vision when we started Clearspring back in 2004 out of graduate school. We wanted the web to be a platform for services that could be remixed by users around the world without any programming. At the time, REST services were at a nascent stage. ProgrammableWeb was not around. Widgets were something geeks used with Konfabulator. Web 2.0 was a sexy jump start to the revolution. Ironically, many folks thought this was just a fad and did not see the relationship between the SemWeb and Web 2.0. This is an excerpt from a post in 2005 I wrote on the topic.

For all those people that think that there is this vast difference between Web 2.0 and Semantic Web I have a message for you. The reason people are at battle over the two seemingly opposing philosophies is simple–semantics. Figure out what Web 2.0 really means. Figure out what Semantic Web technologies can accomplish. Forget the Scientific American article by TBL and think about the next steps that we need to take to accomplish the dream of Web 2.0.

Early on in our history, we focused much more on developing semantic web infrastructure. Given market conditions, we focused on creating end-user tools – widget platform – to encourage the adoption of web services and break the web into pieces. Now, it seems, the web is almost ready for the big dance. Every site is breaking apart into web services, widgets and applications. The announcement by the biggest widget-creator out there, YouTube, of their new API platform is a confirmation of this trend. But it is not just about separating applications from data. The Facebook crew officially jump-started the revolution to free personal information. Specifically, information about user activities, user profile data, and – of course – the ever popular social graph is now quickly being freed from the grips of major silos. This is the spirit of Web 2.0 – the atomization of the web. As Steve Rubel says, the future of the web is web services, not web pages.

As with any revolution of this magnitude, there has been a veritable explosion in new applications and services. The remixing phenomenon has magnified this effort by opening the doors to all types of new services. Although this provides the user with more choice – which is great – the state of browsing has not advanced commensurately with the growth of new services and data.

Where does that leave the user? OVERWHELMED. What do we need to do when we get overwhelmed? Get organized. One way of doing that is to develop new interfaces to sift through data. CoolIris and others are rising to the occasion to try to solve those types of problems. But the other thing that is necessary is to actually organize data and services. And that pain point, my friends, is what Semantic Web Technologies are all about.

Pioneers like Metawebs, Radar Networks and – of course – my friends at AdaptiveBlue have been hard at work building tools in this space aggressively. Metawebs is building a massive semantic storage system, Radar is building a personal organization tool, and AdaptiveBlue has built some amazing services deployed as widgets that smartly aggregate commerce and other services from around the web.

Web 2.0 is about the web breaking into pieces. Web 3.0 – the Semantic Web – will put it all back together.

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  • Eric Alterman

    I love this post, Hooman. When semantic web finally rolls out in a meaningful way, I doubt consumers will have any idea that they just experienced the "semantic web". They'll just find that many separate services that they normally use in an ad hoc fashion are suddenly integrated in more interesting ways.

  • Hooman Radfar

    Thanks, Eric. I absolutely agree. Folks that think that users should understand classes, types, and so forth in order to leverage metadata are probably a bit out of wack with user expectations. People want things to 'just work.' My guess is that we will see a lot more SemWeb technologies that are developed in this spirit and make things just work. Folks like AdaptiveBlue have quietly been rolling this stuff out for some time…

  • Anne Zieger

    Hey, I know Radar Networks is a pioneer, but I don't think they're in deep development mode any more. I had a chance to shoot some e-mail back and forth with Nova's PR contact, and I think Twine is more or less ready for prime time.