Semantic web difficulties

Tuesday 11 November 2003

A friend told me that he didn’t understand my position after reading my posting of a few days ago, about Clay Shirky’s lambasting of the Semantic Web effort. Let me clarify.

Here’s what I think:

  1. The Semantic Web is a good thing. Any efforts to make data more widely usable, either by broadening its distribution, or widening its applicability, is good, and should be encouraged. The web to date has shown has much more power information destined for eyeballs can have when it is inherently networked. The Semantic Web is about doing the same thing for information destined for software. It’s a good thing.
  2. The Semantic Web is being over-sold. The people who really believe in this stuff are painting pictures of such wildly utopian fantasies, that it is easy for skeptics to scorn the entire effort. The good underpinnings are being slathered over with such a thick layer of hype frosting, it’s hard to see the real stuff that’s under there.
  3. Semantics are really hard. Even the reasonable Semantic Web zealots are hand-waving over the difficulty of getting people to agree on what things mean. How you describe something depends to a huge extent on who you are and why you care about the thing.

This last point is the most important, so I’ll say it again: getting people to agree on meaning is really hard. Paul Ford, who is by all accounts a clever guy, and who has some real semantic webbing to his credit, has a long counter-argument to Clay Shirky: A Response To Clay Shirky. In it, he describes in detail the way Amazon could use Semantic Web constructs to build cool stuff.

But let’s look deeper at this. First of all, what are we describing? Amazon is a retailer, so fundamentally, they are describing things to sell. You can go to the Amazon site today and find problems with conflicting semantic models. When I get music recommendations, if I say I like “Goat’s Head Soup”, Amazon will recommend “Goat’s Head Soup [Remastered]”. To me as a music shopper, these are the same thing. To Amazon as a retailer, they are different.

It isn’t hard to create an ontology that lets me describe this situation. It could say that one album was a reissue of another or even a reissue with bonus tracks, and the recommendation service could filter out reissues, or let me choose whether to see them. Amazon may do that someday. But will other music catalogers? Will they consider the same things important?

A real musicologist will want a much richer set of information, and Amazon may not want to expend the energy to maintain all that data. Ideally, the record labels would create the authoritative dataset for an album, so that everyone could use it, much as book publishers print Library of Congress info into their books.

But what if the creator of the item isn’t interested in maintaining as much data as the most fanatical consumer wants? What if their interests don’t strictly overlap? Amazon needs a description that covers books, music, sporting goods, gourmet foods, and all the other things it sells. Musicologists want very deep information about only music. Sure, they can create disjoint ontologies, and data from different schemas can be applied to the same item, but sometimes people can’t even agree whether two items are the same.

Agreement can come, and data webs can be built. It will just be a lot of work, and it will cover less than you might think. Once you get into real world data scenarios, it always gets more complicated than you thought. And we aren’t even covering the economic reasons why people may not want their data webbed together.

I want the Semantic Web to continue to grow. I want it to enrich our lives. I just don’t want its main proponents to over sell it or hand-wave away the hard parts.


The Semantic Web seems like kind of a cool idea, but it seems to me like such a hopelessly idealistic notion. It reminds me a bit of Loglan/Lojban, an artificial language loosely based on symbolic logic, one of whose design goals was to be less ambiguous than natural languages.

One problem with it was that, as far as I can tell, people vastly prefer to use languages which allow some comfortable amount of ambiguity and vagueness. In other words, it requires a fair amount of effort to express oneself precisely, accurately, and unambiguously, and most people simply don't want to put out that effort most of the time.

I suspect that the same is true of web page designers, with respect to Semantic Web info. I guess you touched on this a bit by asking "what if the creator of the item isn't interested in maintaining as much data as the most fanatical consumer wants?" My point is that everyone is a little lazy in that respect, and that there is not enough payback to overcome that.

Your claim that "The Semantic Web is a good thing" brings to my mind Gandhi's response to the question “What do you think of Western civilization?” (“I think it would be a very good idea.”)

IMHO, The Semantic Web would be a good thing ... if it were possible. If people weren't so lazy.

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