I spent a few years working a few houses down the street from the Semantic Web and I came to have serious doubts about the it. My concerns ranged from irritations with the specifications through frustrations with interoperability and tools, and on into angry critiques about innocence in the execution of the standard’s effort. But yet, I remain a thoroughly enthusiastic supporter of the need for widely adopted standards of its kind and I suspect it’s our best hope in the long run.
There are some bright spots in the specs. Turtle (v.s. n3) and RDFa are both pretty nice. They increase the chances that tools will rendezvous and thus decrease the frustrations around interoperability. I think it is nice that Google’s giving RDFa some love.
The tough part of making any successful standard is getting a large volume of transactions taking place over it. After years of effort, to first order, no data moves over RDF. In other words the Semantic Web has been a non-starter. Maybe it has a long runways but few Internet success stories do.
So one of the things that angered me: people at the core of the Semantic Web standardization movement seemed largely disinterested in working on getting a large volume of data to flow. And, wanting to work on that I rarely found people to join in common cause with.
That is a classic problem in making standards. The story is often the same. The shape of the exchange network that emerges almost always the same. The distribution of producers, by volume, shakes out into a highly skewed distribution, a power-law curve. It is the same story with the consumers. You wee that pattern everywhere you look from seen in phone call traffic to web traffic. For example on the consuming side Google and a dozen other entities try to consumer everything.
The lesson in this, if your advocating a standard, is that you need to be consciously puzzling out how to bringing both consumers and producers onto the standard; and you need to be conscious about bringing both the big players and the vast long tail of small players on was well. You always have these four audiences to bring on board. And of course there are others, i.e. experts, tool makers, etc. etc. Everybody has to understand the value proposition, and that story is always the same. You get on board because it substantially improves the transactions with the other guys. The producers desire the consumers and visa versa.
This is the classic chicken and egg problem. Why would anyone waste scarce capital to produce RDF is there is nobody interesting in consuming it, and visa versa? Sometimes you can solve this problem bottom up; you seed some exchange between small producers and consumers and then other see what fun they are having and join in. Given the vast number of little producers and consumers it is typically easy to get this started, but getting it to spread requires a lot of tinder and it’s best if there aren’t alternate ways to do these exchanges. The trouble for the Semantic Web has always been XML. XML provides a well supported means for the little guys to do their exchanges.
A while back somebody at Google asked me: “What can we do to help the Semantic Web along?” I recall thinking, but not saying, that they should loudly signal that they are going to consume RDF, that search results would depend on that. That would be enough, thought I, to trigger the entire search engine optimization industry into frenzy. RDF would start popping out all over in the hope it would improve one’s Google juice. If that actually happened then they could decide if the resulting data was useful. But, I’m embarrassed to say I kept my mouth shut. It didn’t seem to me like my interlocutor was likely to take kindly to the idea. I doubted he’d cotton to the idea of Google actually playing hardball with their market power to shape standards. Thinking back I discover I’m embarrassed. I froze like a deer in the headlights. That makes me smile.
I’m happy to see that Google appears to have done exactly that.
So, what I find most encouraging about the Google announcement is that it might actually do something to draw out more semantic goodness. With luck we might start to observe some RDFa in the wild now. No doubt, at this moment, hordes of SEO consultants are reading the RDFa spec. I wonder how long before all the big vending sites (Amazon, eBay, Walmart, Etsy, etc. etc.) are too.