Understanding The Semantic Web: A Response to Tim O'Reilly's Recent Defense of Web 2.0

Tim O’Reilly, recently blogged another article about Web 2.0 Versus Web 3.0 in which he responded to some of my points about what Web 3.0 is and is not. There are several points in his post that I need to respond to. Here is what I am going to cover in this article:

  • Correcting some factual errors in Tim’s post about Web 3.0
  • Web 2.0 = Industry Renaissance + Marketing Hype
  • Web 2.0 was NOT mainly about back-end innovation
  • Web 2.0 = The Social Web
  • What’s After Web 2.0?
  • The Semantic Web = The Data Web
  • The Value of Open Data
  • Key Points of Differentiation


Before I address where I agree/disagree with his article, there are some factual errors
that should be corrected. Contrary to what Tim states, the term "Web 3.0" was NOT originated by me,
and I’ve never claimed it was. Nor have I designed a definition for it
that was tailor-made for what my startup, Radar Networks,
is up to.

In fact, the term, Web 3.0, was  independently originated by Jeffrey
Zeldman, Tim Berners-Lee, Reed Hastings, John Markoff, and Dan Gillmor. They all had
one thing in common however — a feeling that "Web 2.0" wasn’t the end
of the story for the Web — and that something new was brewing.

Personally speaking, the first time I ever heard the term  was actually in John
Markoff’s New York Times Article on the Intelligent Web, in which he
mentioned several companies including my own. That article made the
first connection between "Web 3.0" and The Semantic Web — and since
that time many people have come to think of these terms as synonymous.

My only contribution to the whole Web 3.0 debate has been to
try to define the term as something that makes more sense, namely, just a decade characterized by a range of technologies that are coming to the
fore, which will include The Semantic Web for sure, but will not be limited to it. I’ve probably put more effort into trying to clarify this term than most, and for that I apologize!

If you are interested in the history, I would encourage you to read the Wikipedia page on the subject for a more detailed account.


I agree with Tim that the Web 2.0 era was
a renaissance — and that there were certain trends and patterns that I
think Tim recognized first, and that he has explained better, than just about
anyone else. Tim helped
the world to see what Web 2.0 was really about — collective

short Tim deserves a lot of credit for defining Web 2.0 and plugging
for that meme incessantly for years. Had he not done that, the industry might not have come
back the way it did. I am very thankful for those efforts — after all they probably got
my company funded.


Tim is annoyed because he thinks that Web 3.0 is "marketing hype." But let’s face it, Web 2.0 is essentially just a buzzword that is nothing other than a marketing term that was designed to promote a conference. Tim even admits this in his article:

Web 2.0 started out as the name of a conference!  And that name had a very specific purpose:  to signify that the web was roaring back after the dot com bust!
The 2.0 bit wasn’t about the technology, but about the resurgence of
interest in the web. When we came up with the idea back in 2003, a lot
of programmers were out of work, and there was a general lack of
interest in web applications. But we saw a resurgence coming, and
designed a conference to tell the story of what was going to be
different this time.

Tim is tacitly agreeing with my view on how these terms should be used in his passage above. Web 2.0 is a period of time that began "back in 2003" when there was a resurgence. People who speak of Web 3.0 are also referring to a period of time — THE NEXT period of time AFTER Web 2.0, in which some kind of discernible new pattern is starting to emerge.


Tim does, I think make a good point about Google being a backend play and being a great Web 2.0 company. But then he goes on to say that "Every major web 2.0 play is a back-end story." I would have to disagree with that statement in just about every case but Google. In fact, every major Web 2.0 play has been built on the LAMP stack, or on Google, or the equivalent, for the most part, not on some fancy new backend technology.

What other Web 2.0 companies can you think of, besides Google, that are truly backend-innovations? Technorati maybe? I’m trying to think of some but the fact is, most Web 2.0 era companies were about getting apps built fast, cheap and simple, by re-using open-source backend components (which were mostly just non-commercial remakes of technologies which had previously existed commercially).

When we look at Web 2.0, the major contributions have been focused towards user-experience. Del.icio.us: A better way to share bookmarks. Flickr: A better way to share photos. YouTube: A better way to share videos. Blogs: A better way to publish user-generated content. Wikis: A better way to share documents. Myspace: A better way to make hideously ugly homepages. LinkedIn: A better way to do social networking. Facebook: a better way to keep in touch with friends. Etc.

The backends of all of these kinds of apps (other than perhaps Facebook, lately) have been nothing to write home about. It’s what they did on the front-end that really sang. And not just the front-end in terms of user-interface, but also in terms of design patterns and approach.


Web 2.0 has been about "the social Web" in my opinion.That’s the big distinction. Google is really a social network measurement algorithm based on similar ideas that had been brewing in the field of bibliometrics for a decade prior, at least.

Most of the big Web 2.0 successes have also been social in one form or another. They have been about harnessing social networks, user-generated content, folksonomies, the wisdom of crowds, and collective intelligence. That’s the real contribution of this era to the Web. Web 2.0 is the Social Web.


If Web 2.0 has largely been about new social applications of existing back-end technologies, the question is what comes next? Clearly there is still a lot of room for improving on the ideas of Web 2.0. But that’s not NEW.

When we think about what would actually be new, it would have to be a characteristic shift that would enable a lot of innovation, new capabilities, new kinds of applications, new design patterns, new technologies. The Semantic Web certainly fits the bill. But it’s not the only technology that will matter.

Tim seems to think that Web 3.0 should be a completely new take on the Web. He says:

So for starters, I’d say that for "Web 3.0" to be meaningful we’ll need
to see a serious discontinuity from the previous generation of
technology. That might be another bust and resurgence, or more likely,
it will be something qualitatively different. I like Stowe Boyd’s musings on the subject:

Personally, I feel the vague lineaments of something beyond Web 2.0,
and they involve some fairly radical steps. Imagine a Web without
browsers. Imagine breaking completely away from the document metaphor,
or a true blurring of application and information. That’s what Web 3.0
will be, but I bet we will call it something else.

I’m with Stowe. There’s definitely something new brewing, but I bet we
will call it something other than Web 3.0. And it’s increasingly likely
that it will be far broader and more pervasive than the web, as mobile
technology, sensors, speech recognition, and many other new
technologies make computing far more ambient than it is today.

Ironically, Stowe suggests that Web 3.0 will be a "blurring of application and information" — that is exactly what the Semantic Web is in fact. Tim then goes on to agree, stating that he thinks there is going to be something far more pervasive than the web, etc. Again that’s another point in support of The Semantic Web — which in fact is not just about the Web, but all information and all applications. It’s a better way to handle the DATA that they use.

The Semantic Web "blurs applications and information" because it starts to move the semantics out of applications and into the information itself. Applications can therefore be smarter while also being thinner — more of what used to be application logic moves into the data itself; the data becomes "smarter."


The Semantic Web is not about AI or anything fancy like that, it is really just about data. Another and perhaps better name for it would be "The Data Web."

RDF enables something as potentially important as HTML. Just as HTML enabled a universally reusable Web of content, RDF enables the Data Web, a universally reusable Web of data. The Web browser is a universal client for content, but not really for data. Web browsers can render any content written in HTML in a standard way. That was a big leap back in the early 1990’s. Previously each type of content required a different application to view it. The browser unified them all — this separation of rendering from data made life easier for programmers, and for end-users. A single tool could render any data because the data carried metadata (HTML) that described how to render it.

But currently although browsers can render the formatting and layout of data, they don’t know anything about the  meaning of the data, unless they are explicitly programmed to do so. The same is true for all applications today — they have to be explicitly programmed in advance to interpret each kind of data they need to use.

The Semantic Web provides a solution for this problem that is analogous to what HTML did for content — RDF and OWL provide a standard way to describe the meaning of any data structure, such that any application that speaks these languages can correctly interpret the meaning without having to have been explicitly programmed to do so in advance.

In other words, the Semantic Web offers the promise of a "universal client for data." That would be a big improvement over how applications are written and how data is managed and stored today. It’s a significant back-end level upgrade, and it requires not only that data is represented differently, but new tools for managing it (new kinds of databases, new API’s, new forms of search, etc.).

There’s also an added benefit to the Semantic Web — one which is usually OVER-emphasized — and that is reasoning. The rich semantics of the RDF and OWL languages enable metadata that not only describes the meaning of data, but also the logical relationships between data and various concepts.

This richer metadata can be used to support machine reasoning, such as simple inferencing, across data on the Web. That’s powerful and will enable a whole new generation of smarter applications and services — the so-called "Intelligent Web" — but it’s not the main point! I think that is rather far off in the future still. Today, just making the "Data Web" would be a huge innovation. Transforming the Web from a distributed file-server to a distributed database is a huge enough step on its own.


The fact
is, while I have great respect for Tim as a thinker, I don’t think he truly "gets" the Semantic Web yet. In fact, he consistently
misses the real point of where these technologies add value, and
instead gets stuck on edge-cases (like artificial intelligence) that all of us who are really working
on these technologies actually don’t think about at all. We don’t care about reasoning or artificial intelligence, we care about OPEN DATA.

From what I can see, Tim thinks the Semantic Web is some kind of
artificial intelligence system. If that is the case, he’s completely missing the point. Yes,
of course it enables better, smarter applications. But it’s
fundamentally NOT about AI and it never was. It’s about OPEN DATA. The
Semantic Web should be renamed to simply The Data Web.

Watch how Tim Berners-Lee talks about it these days as a "universal data bus", for example in this video. That would be a
much more accurate description of where the real thrust of these
technologies is headed.

The real benefit of RDF and OWL is that they disrupt the idea of
what a database is — making it something that is
much more open, more richly described, more decentralized, more extensible, more maintainable, more portable, more precisely definable, and more useful.

If you really look at RDF, OWL, and in particular GRDDL and SPARQL, it
becomes crystal clear that this is a set of technologies about freeing
data from platform and application lock-in. That is really what the
Semantic Web is for.

The benefit of Open Data is that it enables databases and the data they contain to be designed, shared, and mashed-up in a totally bottom-up, user-driven, Web 2.0 manner. This is in fact collective-intelligence applied to data.

I’m really looking forward to the day when Tim O’Reilly sees that the true value of the RDF and OWL, not to mention SPARQL and GRDDL (aka "The Semantic Web") is Open Data. I think when he finally "gets it" he will actually be quite excited about it. When he sees how these technologies enable a bottom-up, distributed, user-generated open Web of Data, I think he will have an epiphany.


There are few important distinctions that Tim is starting to agree with however:

  1. Web 3.0 is not equivalent the Semantic Web. Whatever Web 3.0 is, it is not only going to be limited to the Semantic Web. Many other technologies are emerging that are also going to matter. Collectively they will bring about a shift that is fundamentally disruptive and qualitatively different from the Web 2.0 content and applications we know today.
  2. The Semantic Web is completely orthogonal to the issue collective intelligence. The Semantic Web is no more or less about collective intelligence than Web 2.0. In fact, it has the potential to provide a better medium for collective intelligence. Services like Metaweb’s Freebase, and the new service that Radar Networks will be launching soon, both help to illustrate this point.
  3. The Semantic Web is precisely the kind shift that can define a new era of the Web.  Transforming the Web from a fileserver model to a database model is a big, fundamental shift. The kind of shift that qualifies for a new term like "Web 3.0" if that is necessary.
  4. This is only the very beginning. Let’s not Over-Hype The Semantic Web. The
    Semantic Web has the potential to really upgrade the back-end of the
    Web and all the applications and content on it. But it has not done
    that YET. It is going to be an incremental process — just like Web 2.0
    was. Web 3.0 (2010 – 2020) has not really started yet. We are just in
    2007 and there is much to be done to get there. We should be careful not to over-hype what we are doing.  The real value of the Semantic Web will take many years to truly emerge. The "proof is in the pudding" — but the pudding is going to take some time before it is fully ready for mass-consumption.

In closing I want to also point out that while I am enthusiastic about The Semantic Web, I am not a purist — I actually believe in using what works best, rather than being stuck on some ideology. To that extent, Radar Networks is making use of the Semantic Web, where appropriate, but we also use other techniques and technologies. We’re pragmatists at heart.

0 thoughts on “Understanding The Semantic Web: A Response to Tim O'Reilly's Recent Defense of Web 2.0

  1. Nova —
    Apologies for the misattribution. I thought John Markoff told me that it was you who’d originally suggested the term. On querying him, he says it was actually Dan Gillmor (not the folks you mentioned.)
    As to your idea that there’s a revolution coming in back-end processing of meaningful information, much of it represented by semantic web technologies, you may be right. And I hope that there will be breakthroughs there. But I’ll note two things:
    1. The most advanced web 2.0 properties are actually NOT just using traditional databases. Look at Google’s BigTable and MapReduce. They developed technologies for dealing with massive amounts of data that have in many ways gone in a very different direction than the Semweb.
    2. Improvements in the back end don’t seem sufficient, in and of themselves, to constitute a real revolution. Think Clayton Christenson. Web 2.0 is not a new technology. It’s the rise of the Web and its potential to centrality in the computer industry. It’s a platform shift.
    Web 3.0 (though I doubt it will be called that) will also be a platform shift, not just an incremental improvement to the web.
    That’s why I think it has much more to do with sensors (cell phone, camera, GPS, and special purpose sensors) and the rise of a kind of ambient computing.
    This isn’t to say that I don’t think the stuff you’re doing at Radar Networks doesn’t look amazing. As you know, I’m very eager to try it! And I’m equally fascinated by other startups like Metaweb’s freebase, that are playing with putting semweb approaches to work at a large scale. You’re doing great work.
    Apologies again for the implied criticism in what I thought was the origin of the Web 3.0 term.

  2. Nova,
    I am currently writing a new series at my blog about “The Path towards Next Generation.” Unintentionally, however, I find it actually supplements to your post as well as Tim’s post about Web 3.0.
    I completely agree with you that Web 2.0 was a renaissance. It was a mind shift from a web to which people are attracted to a Web on which people are staying.
    I also agree with you that Web 2.0 is beyond a sole back-end innovation. In fact, I want to point out that there are two typical presentations of Web 2.0. On the frond-end, Web 2.0 is a Read/Write Web; and on the back-end, Web 2.0 is a web of platform. The frond-end innovations on Web 2.0 is at least as important as the back-end innovations.
    Moreover, there will be a Web 3.0, though it might not necessarily be named as “Web 3.0”. The Semantic Web is future; but Semantic Web may not be equivalent to this, whatever may be called, next Web 3.0. What Radar Networks does at present, I believe, is part of the movement to this next generation.
    Great post! Discussion always improves our knowledge.
    — Yihong

  3. Interesting story, interesting misunderstood also. The web is becoming a real science (http://webscience.org) and it’s not easy to understand the power of the SW and how it could be the base of any web3.0 application. The Semantic Web is not some new simple HTML tags; you can’t learn it in one week.
    Few days ago I tried to explain on techcrunch.fr that microformats are not the future (explaining why the semantic web and RDFa are better) and Ouriel Ohayon wasn’t able to understand my purpose (I guess he didn’t even know what was a triple).
    Anyway I don’t understand why people leading web2.0 medias (as Tim O’Reilly or Ouriel Ohayon) don’t study the work of the W3C and emerging web technologies (instead of dreaming of 3D application, 0% accessible).

  4. Just some thoughts while reading Tim’s comment.
    First, I will restrict my comment to the Data Web.
    To have the Data Web, one need to have access to resource descriptions directly on the Web. So there is a notion of data sharing and data accessibility (on the Web).
    Since decades people try to represent knowledge using proprietary and non-proprietary “languages”. What is different with the Data Web is the data is shared and accessible on the Web. The Data is Linked (in fact, resources are linked). And this linkage and resource descriptions create a meta-graph of relationships; some king of meta-network; and all this accessible on the Web, like any web page.
    So, what google do is not different of what other companies have done decades ago. Freebase is, a priory, not accessible on the Data Web (but it is via data conversation from other services). They planned to link their metaweb in the Data Web; should check with them where is their plan now.
    So, the Data Web is basically three things: (1) data written in a language (rdf) according to some vocabularies (ontologies) (2) this data is shared and accessible on the Web (like any web page).
    But we should take care: here we are talking about the Data Web, or the Semantic Data Web. Anyway, what happens if the data is not accessible on the Web? But accessible on another network using other accessibility protocols? It is probably where the semantic web takes its deepness.
    See it as an easy way to exchange, convert and integrate data. Nothing else. After more than one decade, we finally got the technologies to make it happens.
    Take care,

  5. Hi again,
    I forgot to say: if the Web changed the way people were doing business; I have the feeling that the Data Web will completely morph businesses and the way they interact with their environment (other businesses; society; etc;)… should probably talk about their World environment.
    Take care,

  6. The seamless web where data, functions and applications blend on the web is already on. Aspects of Web 3.0 has started.
    One needs to recognize Nova’s vision and inutition in drawing attention to Web 3.0.
    More interesting information is at http://web3next.blogspot.com/
    Thanks, Nova. Please keep up the good work.