A Hybrid 3.0
Even as Semantic Web tools begin to reach the market, so do similar techniques developed outside Miller’s community. There are many ways, the market seems to be saying, to make the Web give ever better answers.
Semantic Web technologies add order to data from the outset, putting up the road signs that let computers understand what they’re reading. But many researchers note that much of the Web lacks such signs and probably always will. Computer scientists call this data “unstructured.”
Much research has focused on helping computers extract answers from this unstructured data, and the results may ultimately complement Semantic Web techniques. Data-mining companies have long worked with intelligence agencies to find patterns in chaotic streams of information and are now turning to commercial applications. IBM already offers a service that combs blogs, message boards, and newsgroups for discussions of clients’ products and draws conclusions about trends, without the help of metadata’s signposts.
“We don’t expect everyone to go through the massive effort of using Semantic Web tools,” says Maria Azua, vice president of technology and innovation at IBM. “If you have time and effort to do it, do it. But we can’t wait for everyone to do it, or we’ll never have this additional information.”
An intriguing, if stealthy, company called Metaweb Technologies, spun out of Applied Minds by parallel-computing pioneer Danny Hillis, is promising to “extract ordered knowledge out of the information chaos that is the current Internet,” according to its website. Hillis has previously written about a “Knowledge Web” with data-organization characteristics similar to those that Berners-Lee champions, but he has not yet said whether Metaweb will be based on Semantic Web standards. The company has been funded by Benchmark Capital, Millennium Technology Ventures, and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, among others.
“We’ve built up a set of powerful tools and utilities and initiatives in the Web-based community, and to leverage and harness them, an infrastructure is desperately needed,” says Millennium managing partner Dan Burstein. “The Web needs extreme computer science to support these applications.”
Alternatively, the socially networked, tag-rich services of Flickr, Last.fm, Del.icio.us, and the like are already imposing a grassroots order on collections of photos, music databases, and Web pages. Allowing Web users to draw their own connections, creating, sharing, and modifying their own systems of organization, provides data with structure that is usefully modeled on the way people think, advocates say.
“The world is not like a set of shelves, nor is it like a database,” says NYU’s Shirky. “We see this over and over with tags, where we have an actual picture of the human brain classifying information.”
No one knows what organizational technique will ultimately prevail. But what’s increasingly clear is that different kinds of order, and a variety of ways to unearth data and reuse it in new applications, are coming to the Web. There will be no Dewey here, no one system that arranges all the world’s digital data in a single framework.
Even in his role as digital librarian, as custodian of the Semantic Web’s development, Miller thinks this variety is good. It’s been one of the goals from the beginning, he says. If there is indeed a Web 3.0, or even just a 2.1, it will be a hybrid, spun from a number of technological threads, all helping to make data more accessible and more useful.
“It’s exciting to see Web 2.0 and social software come on line, but I find it even more exciting when that data can be shared,” Miller says. “This notion of trying to recombine the data together, and driving new kinds of data, is really at the heart of what we’ve been focusing on.”
John Borland is the coauthor of Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic. He lives in Berlin.