understanding the Semantic Web

In response to:

Berners-Lee, Tim; Hendler, James & Lassila, Ora. (2001) “The Semantic Web: A new form of Web content that is meaningful to computers will unleash a revolution of new possibilities.” Scientific American: 1-6.

Shadbolt, Nigel; Hall, Wendy & Berners-Lee, Tim. (2006) “The Semantic Web Revisited.” IEEE Intelligent Systems : 96-101.

A doubter’s (amusing) view of The Semantic Web: Marshall, Catherine C. (2004) Taking a stand on the Semantic Web.

Shadbolt admits that there isn’t a way to effortlessly use ontologies, which limits their application. I am inclined to follow his argument that the implementation of the Semantic Web will depend upon a small core of devoted early-adopters from professional/expert communities. Regardless of sceptics like Marshall, if the promise can be fulfilled in these niche communities, it has the possibility of spreading. I do think that Marshall makes an interesting point in raising the question of possible dangers of full-Semantic Web adoption, though I don’t know enough about information security to know whether her concerns related to identity theft are spurious or well-founded. The narrative presented by Berners-Lee certainly brings to mind potential privacy concerns.

Shadbolt’s comparison of folksonomies (tagging) and ontologies is very useful. The advantage of an ontology, is that by using URIs, an ontology can differentiate between – from Marshall’s example – a beehive (hair style) and a beehive (in which bees live), where as a folksonomy cannot because it depends exclusively on words, and can only be clarified by adding terms to the search string. As an example of the ridiculous places that a casual search can take an information seeker, a circulation clerk describes a catalog search for “harmonica” (please excuse the language). An ontology should allow for more sophisticated searching than a folksonomy, though it is possible that unexpected results can appear in either.

As an interesting note, I had no idea that Creative Commons was an RDF-based representation. My impression was that CC was an information policy advocacy group, and I had never considered how their rights licenses were applied to documents.


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