Sometimes It's Just Semantics

As someone whose job involves understanding how certain people and things relate to one another, the idea of the semantic web is both compelling and scary. It could make my job that much easier, or it could make me as redundant as switchboard operators are today.

Coding information in a standard way so that machines can see how one person relates to another, or how a string of words could alternately be a movie or a book title, is a challenge. But plenty of companies are taking little bits and pieces of the problem and solving them. One such startup, Radar Networks, the maker of Twine, today received $13 million in funding from Velocity Capital, Vulcan Capital and DFJ. Other startups such as EVRI and Freebase have also benefited from VC interest in the semantic web.

Some of the companies are following the standards offered by the W3C, which is pushing RDF as a standard data structure to underlie the semantic web. But not all companies working on helping machines figure out the relationships and categories that most humans have learned use that standard.

Nor are all the companies interested in making the semantic web work startups. Yahoo uses RDF in some of its offerings and Google‘s efforts with its social graph API initiative resembles the semantic web in its goals. Instead of using RDF, however, it’s using XFM and FOAF tags.

Reuters is another company that sees potential is getting machines to understand relationships. Earlier this month its CEO laid out a pretty compelling vision (at least to Tim O’Reilly) about how Reuters would rely less on delivering information and more on packaging its information in a way that could be used by analysts and computers to quickly delineate relationships.

Reuters would then be able to take its content, make it programmable and offer that data to users, who could then do with it what they will. Things like making relationship charts that currently can take a journalist and graphics department a couple of days to complete, and must then be monitored and changed manually, become easy.

The effort to render all of the data on the web into a semantic form will take a while. Nova Spivack, CEO of Radar Networks, believes that semantic web applications are currently in the early adopter phase. Twine will unveil its efforts in March through a private beta and another startup, AdaptiveBlue launched a semantic plug-in called Blue Organizer earlier this month. Spivack believes that in 2010 mass adoption will take place as people start to expect machines to make “intelligent” connections between people and things.

All of this is interesting, but putting a layer of semantic code over the existing web raises some concerns. One is the danger of inaccurate or at the very least less nuanced sense of relationships between people. Another is the everlasting nature of information on the web. How will coded tags be able to follow the intricacies of human relationships as fights ensue, jobs shift and even names change?

Another issue that we’ll have to deal with is confusion as people try to figure out what the semantic web really is. I’m thinking of it as code added to existing and new web content that helps determine and maybe track relationships between people and contexts for objects. I’m not married to the W3C standards, however, and others are doing this without using those particular programming tools.

There are also plenty of other definitions and hopes for the next phase of the web that may play out before we get an intelligent Internet. It’s already apparent that the web will continue to become more useful over time, but won’t ever replace the benefits of human interactions. If you doubt me, just recall your most fulfilling customer service call with a person compared with your most fulfilling experience with an automated agent. While both are helpful, sometimes you need a real, live human being.

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