Why it’s hard to sell me on the Semantic Web – Part 1

A good friend of mine works as a social media editor.  We periodically get together for long lunches where the free wheeling conversation hits all the topics of note in the current communication scene.  I was surprised today when he brought up the question of the Semantic Web.  After a half-decade stint in the business of semantic technologies, I’ve basically written off the Semantic Web.  After ten years of failed promise, I’m always a bit surprised to hear another rumor of it’s pending existence.

In short – the Semantic Web promises to turn all of the text found on the web into machine readable facts, and to provide programs that can use those facts to answer questions for you.  So, for example, a restaurant website may say “We’re located at 518 Chestnut Street, have a wide variety of sandwiches, and are open on Saturday.”  The website may give a full menu, driving directions, a list of daily specials, etc.  To a computer this looks like just a bunch of text – blah blah blah blah.  A semantically marked up document would put a formal representation of this information in place along with the text.  Very loosely speaking, it would look something like this:

<Organization type=”Restaurant” name=”Bob’s Restaurant” id=”1″/><isLocatedAt/><Address text=”518 Chestnut Street”/>

<Organization id=”1″/><sellsGoods/><Food type=”sandwiches”/>

<Organization id=”1″/><isOpen/><recurringDay=”7″/>

Once beautiful documents like this are in place, you can ask your computer a question like “Where can I get a sandwich on Saturday”, and the computer would come back with my restaurant.  You could even give your computer quite complex tasks and have it come back with good answers –  “I have to pick up toothpaste, a watermelon, and a large camelhair coat, meet with the mayor, my fiancee, and my lawyer, and I want to get a good sandwich around lunchtime.  Please plan out a course of travel and schedule that takes into account expected traffic and the hours of the shops I have to visit. Also, let me know if I’m passing any place that’s having a going-out-of-business sale.”  The computer would hit tens of websites, communicate with other agents, and put together the schedule and information for you.

That’s the dream.  None less than Tim Berners Lee, the father of the web, has been championing this for years.  The seminal article on the topic was published in 2001.

There are a few major roadblocks.  Teaching computers about common sense is hard – that’s the ontology problem.  Creating those beatiful documents above is hard – that’s the markup problem.  Teaching computers to reason through all those facts is hard – that’s the reasoning problem.  The one I’d like to really focus on, though, is the trust problem.  I’ll post on that one in the coming days.

This is your Brain on New Media

There’s been a firestorm of late about the amount of repetitive stories on RSS, particularly in the technical blogs. Michael Arrington declared open war on embargoes, which touched off an insightful article from Louis Gray. (Thanks to this article from Smoothspan for sending me over.)

Louis writes:

While I look forward to banging through my Google Reader feeds every day, I can pretty much bank on seeing the same story, spun a different way, a good dozen or two dozen times by every single tech blog – even if it’s clear that they are just reporting that someone else reported the news. If you see a story has been covered already and you have nothing to add – leave it alone.

What is most interesting to me here is the personal and societal. We’re the guinea pigs in a new media reality. I would really love to hear a voice as incisive as Marshall McLuhan’s to help me understand what that is doing to my brain. We have here a media that can be treated either as hot or as cold. It is neither entirely overwhelming or intensively participatory. Neither is is somewhere in between – it’s something other than the media we’ve seen up until now. Its character is entirely dependent on the reader.

This media calls to the forefront each person’s ability to choose, and it’s likely for this reason that it’s becoming the arena for a brilliant hashing out of interpersonal ethics – When do I speak and when am I silent? What obligations do I have to the people who listen to me? What obligations do I have to myself when I participate in this? How much responsibility do I bear for the overall state of the media?

Still cooking these ideas…any insight welcome.

A Bit of Blatant Self Promotion

Alex Margolin sourced me in his article on social media that appeared in last Friday’s Jerusalem Post. In the article I say brilliant things like:

“What Facebook and other tools that use similar principles are doing is implementing word-of-mouth marketing on a large scale, and word-of-mouth marketing is the most effective form of marketing because it uses trusted connections, those connections that actually cause people to do things.”

This is Your Brain on Twitter

With condolences for all those who lost relatives in Mumbai.

As Indian special forces made their way into the Neriman house in Mumbai, I found myself on the front lines of the reporting – sitting in front of my computer, in Jerusalem.

The latest news was always on Twitter, and I was, for a time, one piece of the rapid-response network pushing the news through. Collectively, we had our eyes on every news source, first-hand, second-hand, and other. The stream of tweets often contained every fact and its opposite – there are gunshots, the raid is over, the hostages are dead, there is celebrating in the streets, the commandos are still in action, the police are charging the crowd, there’s gunshots, the hostages are released, the police should push the crowd back. Time delays of different sources made for a bizarre admixture of contradictory reports.

I bounced between browser tabs – video feeds, blackberry messages from men on the ground. Those that seemed to have the ring of truth (how do we judge truth?) I sent on. I was a nerve cell. I received signals and sent them forward. 40 years ago, Marshall McLuhan pointed out that electric media effectively creates a worldwide nervous system for the planet. Indeed.

I feel as if I personally lost someone close to me. A consequence of being a nerve cell in this global body, it seems.

Can Newspapers be Saved?

Hank William’s paints a bleak future for the traditional print newspaper industry. Readership is increasingly going online for its news, advertisers certainly aren’t interested in buying ads in unread print editions, and, unlike search ads, website display ads don’t work.

How is a cultural institution like the New York Times to survive? That’s the problem Mr. William’s article has had me thinking about all day. His solution, however, leaves me scratching my head. He wants to solve it by making the browser experience more like the newspaper experience – give them the power, he claims, and users will gladly fall back into familiar newspapers modes of browse and scan, making ads more relevant and saving the life of the venerable newspaper.

I don’t buy it.

I agree that display ads are less effective online than in print, but that’s just one piece of the equation. Traditional ads in general are losing their effectiveness. Print ads themselves don’t do as well as they did before the Internet. As a consumer, what use do I have for advertisements? They no longer inform, as they once did; I can ask questions online and get trusted answers instantly. With my needs well covered, I do my best to avoid ads in whatever medium they are found.

The online ad purveyors are busy adding in support for geo-location, but hyper-local ads don’t recover the utility that newspaper ads used to have. True, I may be interested in a new local restaurant, but when the local store will never beat the price of the online store, I don’t care if they’re having a sale. The only advantage they have over the online store is their location, and that’s a fact I can easily find out when and if I care to. There’s precious little that an advertisement can tell me that I will really care about.

What we’re seeing is not just a breakdown caused by a new interface to the same old content, we’re seeing the crumbling of a business model whose assumptions have eroded away underneath it. The new medium, as every major new medium before it, is entirely rewiring the way our society, our businesses, and our brains work. A browser with scan and pan isn’t going to bring back the relevance of traditional advertising.

So what will newspapers do to save themselves? Not knowing what else to do, they’re going to put the ads where people have to read them – in the story. Movies have done it with product placement and radio with announcer-read advertisements. The traditional reliance on ads will force their hand, and a good portion of the public will just learn to deal. The ads that are the basis of the business will begin to show on the face of the business, but I doubt that even this will save them. It will just be the last gasp of the dying enterprise.

With big-budget ad-supported players failing to make the turn, the real reporting is going to come from one and maybe two sources. The first is the massive number of plugged in people who are already becoming the nervous system of the planet. This source is a sure bet to remain a major force. The generation of news online is already a distributed and complex interweaving of parsed and recombined news streams – we can only expect that to grow and take on new forms.

The other source may or may not come into being. As the newspapers and magazines pass away and the organic news network gets noisier and noisier, there may be a thirst for the best of what the newspapers had offered – the investigation, the insight, the sharp analysis. If there are those who can provide what the network can not, if there are individuals who by their unique point of view can create content that the market desires, then we have all the makings of a natural news market – without the massive players and without the ad dollars. Those who can provide value will be valued. The market will drive the business, and it’s ultimately something very close to a subscription model that will keep good news alive.

A Social Question

I’m thinking about social networks, and an apple falls on my head. The geeks were on this train eight years ago, but no one noticed. And you know what? They’re still on the same train, and no one notices. FOAF, or ‘Friend of a Friend’ is a formal, computer understandable way of declaring who knows who. Put a bunch of FOAF documents together, and bing, you’ve got a social network. FOAF started a good long time ago, as part of the grass roots technical effort behind the fabled Semantic Web, but just like the Semantic Web, it never hit its growth spurt.

I googled FOAF – 6 and a half million results. Not bad.

Facebook? 36 million. “Social Network”? 15 million. OpenSocial? nearly 11 million.

And FOAF had a six year head start. Eight in the case of OpenSocial.


What factors make FOAF just a footnote? A few things –

1) It’s hard – FOAF is all about geeks, from beginning to end. Writing a FOAF document is hard, getting it online is hard, and doing anything with it is hard. The potential market of the technology is limited by its form. The technology was never put within reach of the masses.

2) It’s boring – Who cares if one computer coder is friends with another? The declaration of this knowledge is computationally interesting, but it doesn’t do anything. There’s no sizzle to sell. It creates a social graph, but there’s no socializing happening.

3) It’s artificial – In FOAF, the social connections aren’t created organically, they have to be constructed. If sending an email created a FOAF connection, that would be organic. As it stands now, someone has to go out and document reality. If you want to document reality, it’s much better if the reality forges its own documentation.


Let’s look at Facebook, on the other hand. It looses points on the technical purity and openness scale; it’s a big mean closed network. But it gets the three points above spot on.

1) It’s stupid easy to use – there’s barely any barrier to entry at all. Point and click, instant gratification, AJAX love.

2) It’s exciting – on Facebook you can see pictures of people who you might want to date. There has never been a more powerful engine for technical adoption. Period.

3) It’s organic – I create connections on facebook by going about my daily business – talking to people, showing off, looking for love, complementing others, planning a party, building a cause. It’s all sorts of organic; it’s useful.


Easy, exciting, and organic. Can we do the same thing for other otherwise doomed Semantic Web technologies? How do you make OWL easy, exciting, and organic? Would love to hear your insights.