The most pertinent issue surrounding the Semantic Web is why it has not yet gained strong traction from the development community. First, when I say grassroots I'm referring to the initiative of people like you and I to create the Semantic Web from the bottom-up. The ivory towers is the W3C and their initiative to create the Semantic Web. Both groups are pivotal to the acceptance and adoption of new standards and technologies. Without grassroots initiatives we would not have adoption and without the W3C we would not have standards (which we all have learned the Web most certainly requires).

The Semantic Web is in a sticky place right now. There are people like us (grassroots) that have invested great interest in the Semantic Web and some (myself included) believe it to be the natural evolution of the Web. Aside from human nature the problem is that there really aren't that many of us when compared to the adoption of more wildly popular development paradigms such as Web 2.0. The Web 2.0 initiative started with the people (e.g. the developers). This is not to say that the Semantic Web will not gain traction. In fact, just the opposite; it will gain tremendous traction once the ability to shape and create the Semantic Web falls into the hands of developers.

No need to fear, there are already people working to give us that ability. Microformats are in fact the very early "grassroots" building blocks of the Semantic Web. Microformats are a clever way of embedding metadata within XHTML, satisfying the need to include metadata while also eliminating the need to add extra markup or learn RDF. Microformats are easy to implement and have a very small learning curve attached to them. Indeed, this is where the Semantic Web starts; with little bits of information (such as the information stored in Microformats) sprinkled about the Web. Of course there is much more to the Semantic Web than that, but we're talking baby steps right now.

Once metadata "sprinkling" becomes popularized among developers through hype and ease-of-implementation (or better yet no work whatsoever, more on that in later) we will finally begin to see a steady flow of applications that take advantage of this information. Naturally the train doesn't stop there. Microformats may be the initial building blocks but have we forgotten about our dear friends at the W3C? Of course we haven't. They have laid a path for us beyond our grassroots initiative with RDF, SPARQL, OWL, and so on. These will be the languages used to define the true Semantic Web.

There is still a bit of a problem though. The Semantic Web requires developers to learn a multitude of new languages atop the already growing number of languages we already need to know for today's Web. Naturally people will learn them, and they should. That will take time and we should not rest the fate of the Semantic Web on the early adopters alone. The Semantic Web will need to be a thing of little thought to the average site owner.

I believe that the Blogosphere will be the earliest example of a thriving mini-Semantic Web. Blog owners tend to be somewhat on the bleeding edge whether they know it or not. This is mostly thanks to Web applications such as WordPress, MovableType, Expression Engine, etc. We can start out by writing plugins for these blog systems that expose metadata automatically and without the need for the blog maintainer to know the underlying tech. Eventually the blog systems themselves can be programmed (by their developers) to provide the functionality the plugins offer. This will create a massive surge in the adoption of metadata sprinkling, as it will require no action at all by your average blog maintainer.

It doesn't stop there. Blogs are only a small portion of the Web. Much of the today's Web is powered by open source software like Joomla, PHPNuke, Drupal, PHPBB, osCommerce, etc. The same steps can be taken to "semantify" the content of those sites as well.

While the grassroots and ivory towers of the world have different methods of reaching the same goals, in the end it will require efforts on both our behalves to reach our common goal of the Semantic Web.

About the author

James Simmons

It's my goal to help bring about the Semantic Web. I also like to explore related topics like natural language processing, information retrieval, and web evolution. I'm the primary author of Semantic Focus and I'm currently working on several Semantic Web projects.

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