The Semantic Web is About Helping People Use the Web More Productively

I’ve been reading some of the further posts on various blogs in reaction to the Markoff article in the New York Times last Sunday. There is a tremendous amount of misconception about the Semantic Web– as evidenced for example by Ross Mayfield’s post recently. Ross implied that the Semantic Web is about automating the Web, rather than facilitating people. This is a misconception that others have taken to even further extremes — some people have characterized it as an effort to replace humans, replace social networks and social software, etc. etc. That is simply NOT at all correct! Quite the opposite in fact.

The Semantic Web is just a way to augment and improve the EXISTING Web and all the existing relationships, groups, communities, social networks, user-experiences, apps, content, and online services on it. It doesn’t replace the Web we have, it just makes it smarter. It doesn’t replace human intelligence and decision-making, it just augments human thinking, so that individuals and groups can overcome the growing complexity of information overload on the Web.

For example, when you want to research a subject you are not an
expert on, the Semantic Web will make it easier to find the right
information, and to see and explore its connections to other
information, and to evaluate the sources of that information. This will
be possible because more knowledge and context about that subject will
be accessible to your tools, enabling your tools to do a better job of
helping you locate, navigate and make sense of information, without you
having to already be an expert. But it will still be up to you to think
about and evaluate the information that is found, use it, and make
decisions about it.

Someday in the future perhaps there will be smarter software that
can do a better job of helping human users solve more complex problems,
like deciding where to go on vacation or what kind of car to buy, or
how to fix a complex technical problem with a computer system — but
even then, these apps will only be making suggestions. It will still be
up to human users to decide what to actually do. And anyway, such
capabilities already exist today in many recommendation services that
help shoppers find music or other products they like. With more
semantics, they will get better, but that is a far cry from the
humanity being replaced by software! I don’t think that will ever
happen, for many reasons, and I’ve written about why quite extensively
in several other articles on this blog, such as here.   

The Semantic Web doesn’t replace people or communities, it
facilitates them and augments their online experiences, relationships
and information and it reduces complexity and information overload —
so they can be smarter, communicate more productively, search more
precisely, build better social networks, collaborate more effectively,
and create richer content.

In my own writing about the Semantic Web I have emphasized
extensively how I believe the real long-term import of the this
technology will be to facilitate greater levels of collective
intelligence — that is collective intelligence of among people.
Collective intelligence is something that we have already seen "Web
2.0" start to enable — but that is just the beginning. Tagging and
folksonomies are nice, but still quite primitive. Adding more semantics
to these systems will make them dramatically better and more useful
than they are today. 

The fact that the Semantic Web is ultimately about facilitating
people seems to have gotten lost in all the mania surrounding the term

0 thoughts on “The Semantic Web is About Helping People Use the Web More Productively

  1. Nova, I believe that you and Ross are talking about the same thing indeed. When we discuss the term “semantic,” it is about the semantics that machines may interpret rather than for human understanding. Therefore, ultimately the so-called “Semantic Web” focuses on machine-side technologies though they are eventually invoked and used by humans (of course humans are consumers of everything). Based on this understanding, there is no problem for Ross to emphasize that “the Semantic Web is about automating the Web.”
    The focus of Semantic Web technologies is obviously different from the focus of Web 2.0 technologies. Obviously, Web 2.0 emphasize much more on human participations in web communications. No matter how machines (or whether machines) may understand human instructions, Web 2.0 technologies are to improve human-to-human directly communications because it is still assumed that humans read tags, humans read blogs, humans read RSS, humans search web. Everything is still human-oriented rather than machine-oriented.
    So the goals of Web 2.0 and Semantic Web are in completely different directions. Hence it is very much awkward to assign “Web 3.0”, a descendant of Web 2.0, for Semantic Web.