Frag men tation

This is my last piece directly about the 8th International Semantic Web Conference, though I’ll continue to be inspired by the things I picked up there. My other two pieces were about ontologies and data visualization.

I was sorry to leave ISWC today – and not just because of my fondness of suburban Virginia. For a humanities-oriented undergrad in a crowd of expert scientists and researchers, I learned an astonishing amount in the past few days – certainly enough to spark my interest in continuing to learn and discuss more, if only I could find a corollary to the community I just  met somewhere online.

The problem is that the great discussions I witnessed or joined at ISWC are – online – fragmented into such specialized subgroups that they have no place for a beginner like me. What’s more, the subjects that are addressed are so narrow that they turn into conversations restricted to a few participants and many uninvolved witnesses (when they take place on listservs, many unread emails). Experts talking to experts – great for solving specific technical problems, horrible for sharing the general knowledge and thoughts that spark real insight.

What I thought was greatest about ISWC was that nearly everyone was an expert at something different – which meant that any discussion with a largish audience or any happenstance encounter between two specialists (say, a natural language researcher and an RDF programmer) had to avoid the technical jargon of either specialty and instead frame everything with the best precision afforded by regular English (believe me, this is much more difficult than dipping into a pre-made vocabulary). Not only is that a good exercise for anyone who wants understand her own subject area more clearly, it’s also the best way to discover parallels between disparate fields. Whereas a psychologist might have nothing to say about “distributed computing,” when talking about “parallel processing,” he may actually turn out to be quite the expert. It’s almost a test of ontology-matching – suddenly finding out that the concept I represent as X in my specialty’s categorization structure is practically the same as what you happened to call Y in yours. What’s the significance of that? As David Karger and Jim Hendler stressed at Wednesday’s mentoring lunch, that discovery is usually one of the best conditions for creative insight. Science is well accustomed to seeing a person with a problem figure out how to solve it by happening upon a person with the solution in another field. All they needed was to run into each other.

But where is that uncontrolled, randomly-matching social space online? Online, communications function more as structured discussions than freewheeling conversations. In shedding their haphazardness, they lose a lot of creativity.

I should probably point out that this isn’t particularly a problem of the Semantic Web; fragmentation and increasingly self-selected groups are a byproduct of the web in general. It may become intensified by the Semantic Web – which decreases the randomness and facilitates intentional self-selection on the web – but it’s a problem for everyone. Only maybe a little more so for scientists, who have always tended to break into autonomous, self-referential subgroups of experts rather easily.

Specialized, self-selected communities reinforce their own ideas and biases and make insightful leaps more difficult, to the detriment of all fields. The web facilitates self-selection and thus fragmentation. What is to be done?

about Web 2.5

This blog is about how the current World Wide Web is becoming the web of the future. If you’re someone who uses the Internet (presumably you just did), then this blog is very much about your future. What’s great is, the future of the web is all about total, universal connectedness.

Some good reasons for reading this blog (or just learning about Web 3.0):


  • As an antidepressant: Most of the future (political, economic, environmental, Mad Men) looks bleak. But the future of technology looks sunnier every day. Visions of the next World Wide Web depict our lives as more organized, our scientific research more effective, and the information of the whole world better connected than it is today. Really, the tech people I talk to are some of the happiest and most idealistic around.
  • Out of interest: Personally, I love reading anything about Google, Twitter, Wikipedia, or Craigslist because most of their news is directly relevant to me. I’m even more interested in what future web phenomenons will look like, but because the people behind them tend to be so very smart – and a little disconnected from the rest of us – they often don’t write for those of us with non-technical backgrounds. On this blog, I’ll be doing the work of filtering and translating the best news and information about our collective journey toward Web 3.0.
  • To be a pioneer: The beauty of the World Wide Web (it is beautiful) is that it is the great democratizer. No one’s URL – the New York Times‘ or mine – is easier to reach than any others’ and anyone with a really good idea can become the next Mark Zuckerberg or Craig Newmark. The next generation of the web is almost here and you can encourage it, shape it, or profit from it, but only if you’re armed with knowledge about what’s going on.

So what’s the big idea?

The Web is just a social teenager…

The World Wide Web is still maturing. In the nineteen short years of its life, the WWW has grown from a small network of computers at a physics lab in Geneva – and from the brain of an idealistic English scientist there – to emerge as a new non-national, non-physical space that is open to anyone and contains the intellectual wealth of the entire world. We’re still grasping the implications of such a network. It’s only recently graduated to Web 2.0 – the social web – during which user participation exploded everywhere into editable sites like Wikipedia, countless web applications built on open source software and instant info-sharing sites like Twitter, Digg, and Reddit. Web 2.0 is the realization of the wisdom of the crowds: that the many are smarter than the few. The success of the social web showed us how much people can achieve when everyone everywhere can collaborate.

…and hasn’t realized yet how to put together everything it knows.

But while people have figured out how to work together effectively on the Internet, despite differences in language or nationality, computers are still way behind at sharing information. Why can’t your emailed RSVP to a party automatically show up as an event on your calendar and why can’t search engines figure out what you’re asking and just give you the right answer? Because the web is still set up for people to communicate, but not for machines. All those applications that let people access information also hide it from our computers in layers of irregular formatting and code that tells them how to display data, but not what it means.

What’s going to happen?

That’s where Web 3.0 comes in. Often referred to as the “Semantic Web” – a term coined by Tim Berners-Lee, that same English scientist who invented the web – the next thing to revolutionize our online world is the beginning of smart computer-to-computer communication. Instead of a web of human-readable documents, Web 3.0 will be a web of data, where every piece of information is semantically (meaningfully) linked to every other one. The WWW will become a giant computer-searchable database where we won’t waste our time on lengthy searches and transferring data between applications, because our computers will already understand the relationships between pieces of data on the web.

So what’s Web 2.5?

Well, we’re not quite ready for Web 3.0. For a complete Semantic Web, every piece of data would have to be marked-up with tags that tell computers what it’s about and what its relationship is to everything else. That would basically mean rewriting everything that’s on the web (using a semantics-based language such as OWL). But until then, the tech world is coming up with tools to interpret what we’ve got – an unstructured mass of information – to approach the ideals of the Semantic Web – a smarter, better-linked web of data. For example, work in natural language processing and question-answering (i.e. “What would be better for my six-year-old’s headache, Tylenol or aspirin?”), social graphing (a total mapping of how everyone is related to everyone else, or, the ultimate social network), or efforts to free your data from applications are all mini-steps toward computer understanding of the relationships between information. And they’re all part of what I’m calling Web 2.5: the transition from a web of tangled words to a web of interwoven meaning. Along the way, the developing technology will be spawning some very smart new sites and applications – like HealthBase, Dapper and Wolfram Alpha – but ultimately it’s headed toward the creation of a newly-connected world, whose full significance we can’t yet predict.