JUL 30th 2010

It has been twelve years since Tim Berners-Lee threw up his hands and said "it's all crap, let's do it over" and set off to create the Semantic Web. We've got very little to show for it so far. I firmly believe the work Semantic Web technologists are pursuing is important and the concepts will inevitably be realized and I very much want to see this research become viable. But things are not moving fast enough and the tack semantic researchers are taking simply isn't working.

Semantic Web technology is marred in a chicken/egg paradox. The technologies are generally not useful unless they are adopted and implemented on a large scale and people are not willing to invest in implementing them unless they are useful. This is exacerbated by the fact that there are very high technology, business, and social barriers to implementing the Semantic Web.

  1. Technology Barriers: Even today, implementing RDF parsers is complex and difficult and the best tools are hopelessly slow. These are the most basic and fundamental tools the Semantic Web needs to operate and we still can't get them to work.
  2. Business Barriers: If the Semantic Web is implemented the current web industry will be intensely disrupted. EBay, Google, Amazon - virtually all mainstays of web-business will have to significantly adjust their business and technology models. Because of this web-businesses are trepidacious when it comes to investing, adopting, and promoting the Semantic Web.
  3. Social Barriers: The way in which we use the web will be greatly changed when the Semantic Web is implemented. Just look at the current state of usability in feed aggregation for a hint of what will be required for users to adopt the newly realized functionality.

These barriers are far from insurmountable, but the tack the current researchers are taking simply won't cut it.

  1. Researchers are not finding adequate use-cases for implementing compelling functionality, instead they are creating widgets. There are a great many of organizations out there with real-world needs that would be greatly served by implemented Semantic Web-technology but researchers are for the most part turning a blind eye and working in a vacuum.
  2. Researchers are not picking their battles. Instead they are building generic tools with little real world applicability.
  3. Researchers are not keeping up with the web and web-publishing software. It seems that in an effort to remain neutral towards the current web-publishing industry Semantic Web researches choose to build their own tools in isolation. This means that anyone wanting to reuse these tools in a real world application has to re-implement them within their own web-publishing environment which due to the high technology barriers simply isn't happening. This is a shame because it would actually save the researchers time, effort, and money if they simply implemented their tools within web-publishing environments such as Drupal and it would allow adopters to implement the tools at zero cost.
  4. Researchers are not moving at the pace the web is currently developing, instead they are attempting to leap-frog it. A good example of this is the Microformats initiative. Why are Semantic Web researchers not collaborating with the teams pursuing these projects?

So what can we do about it?

  1. Researchers need to stop thinking of themselves as researchers and start thinking of themselves as implementers.
  2. Research institutes need to join forces with emerging businesses looking to adopt semantic technology. This breaks the current model of business / research institute collaboration since startups do not have money to contribute to fund research, but tough noogies.
  3. Researchers need to build their tools in real-world development environments, i.e. as modules for LAMP web-publishing tools such as Drupal and Wordpress. They need to find more organizational partners to deploy their solutions. They need to do something other than build widgets.

This article is a re-post of an article that was originally published in 2006. Some of the points are now outdated.

About the author

Zack Rosen

I am a founding partner at Chapter Three LLC, an open-source web development company. I started Mission Bicycle, a custom bicycle company. Previously, I started a non-profit technology project named CivicSpace with my friend Neil Drumm and directed it for two years. I live in the Mission district of San Francisco.

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