What is the Semantic Web?
A fellow named John Markoff wrote a piece for the “New York Times” in 2006 that stirred up quite a heated discussion, one that continues to this day. He proposed, early in the scheme of things but certainly not for the first time, that the term “Web 3.0” be used to describe the Internet’s next evolutionary step, which he predicted would be marked by an outpouring of “intelligent applications.” Not to sound like a 10-year-old on a road trip, but, “Are we there yet?”
No, we’re not, but don’t get hung up on the number scheme — if you did, you’d have to peg the forward progress at about Web 2.6 or so — because the fact is that evolution, of any kind, is not that precise or predictable. Evolution is gradual for the most part, but “punctuated,” as paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould famously observed, by occasional periods of rapid change. In the case at hand, there was a flurry of advances that have now leveled off somewhat, but one key “enabling technology” is the still-emerging Semantic Web.
What’s in a name (or number)?
Clearly, the Web is moving into a new era, one featuring more of those “intelligent apps” that will be empowered and advanced by the addition of more semantics to the raw data. Does this evolutionary advance, still in the works, really qualify the Web to ratchet itself up to 3.0? In fact, what does “Web 2.0” even mean? Why did no one call the first iteration of information superhighway “version 1”? As straightforwardly as possible, here is a reasonable description of what version numbers appended to “Web” really stand for:
Web 1.0: In the beginning (sounds like the start of another famous tale) there was AOL, Geocities and Hotmail. The early days were all about read-only content, static HTML websites and navigating around from “link listers” like Yahoo.
Web 2.0: As technologies matured — and people did, too — user-generated content and “read-write” interactivity arrived on the scene. No longer were people mere consumers. Ordinary (non-IT-industry) folks began contributing their energy, information and ideas via blogs and such sites as Flickr, YouTube, Digg and the “social networking space.” The line between consumers and content publishers grew increasingly blurred as Web 2.0 inched its way toward the next revision number.
Web 3.0: If implemented in a way consistent with the most publicized dreams and visions (“plans and strategies,” if you prefer), Web 3.0 will be the Semantic Web. Clarity and usefulness would result from attaching meaning to data, leading to personalization à la iGoogle, intelligent search as never before imagined and “behavioral advertising” that is tailored to individual consumers.
Same data, different lens
Certainly, the term “Web 2.0,” which never achieved any sort of critical mass outside the tech-savvy demographic, has at least come to have, over time, a stable definition. We can safely call it a focus on interactivity and interoperability, between and among applications as well as people, using custom Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), widgets, and even such social actions as tagging. When “Web 2.0” was first entering the “digital lexicon,” many people thought it was meaningless and, in fact, ranted and railed against its use.
Today, “Web 2.0” is an industry standard term, if not a popularly understood one, and its history suggests that “Web 3.0” at least has a good shot at adoption — as a word, anyway. As a technology, environment, tool or doorway to “virtual reality,” Web 3.0 will thrive to the extent that our technology and content get smarter and smarter, individually and jointly. Adding meaning to data with the Semantic Web and microformats, and adding smarts to applications, means better help for people by way of natural language searches, semantic searches, “recommendation agents,” decision-making wizards and so on.
It’s a journey, not a destination
Except for the fact that people like to label things, we probably wouldn’t be bothering with version numbers on what is essentially a graphical layer of the Internet. It’s always going to be evolving, but if we have to call it something at least “Web 3.0” is less confusing (and intimidating) than “Semantic Web” to most folks. Whatever it’s called, there will be people that know a lot about how it works and where it’s going, and others that range from knowing a little to knowing nothing at all. ‘Twas ever thus, as they say.
Web 2.0 (2.6?) and the first moves toward the Semantic Web are steering the World Wide Web toward a more collaborative way of sharing knowledge, with the current case of Gouldian “punctuated equilibrium” being the Web’s new social aspect. Social networking has had broad social impacts far beyond the monitors, keyboards and browsers. The Semantic Web may lead the Web closer to its ultimate destination of machine-human “understanding,” and enhanced interaction. Web evolution continues without any central organizing authority, plan or deadline, which is a good thing. At whatever point we stop and say, “We’re at 3.0 now,” it will still be just a milestone along the way, since Web evolution, punctuated or not, will forever be a journey, not a destination.