SemWeb not by committee

At SXSW today Eric Meyer gave a talk on Emergent Semantics. He humorously described emergent as a fancy way of saying grassroots, groundup (from the bottom or like ground beef), or evolutionary. The talk was about adding rel attributes to XHTML <a> elements, or the lowercase semantic web, or Semantic XHTML, of which I am a fan.

Unfortunately Eric made some incorrect statements about the uppercase Semantic Web, or RDF/RDFS/OWL, of which I am also a fan. First, he implied that the lowercase semantic web is to the Semantic Web as evolution is to intelligent design, the current last redoubt of apolgists for theism.

Very much related to this analogy, Eric stressed that use of Semantic XHTML is ad hoc and easy to experiment with, while the Semantic Web requires getting a committee to agree on an ontology.

Not true! Just using rel="foo" is equivalent to using a RDF property (though the meaning of the RDF property is better defined — it applies to a URI, while the application of the implicit rel property is loose).

In the case of more complex formats, an individual can define something like hCard (lowercase) or vCard-RDF (uppercase).

No committee approval is required in any of the above examples. vCard-RDF happens to have been submitted to the W3C, but doing so is absolutely not required, as I know from personal experience at Bitzi and Creative Commons, both of which use RDF never approved by committee.

At best there may be a tendency for people using RDF to try to get consensus on vocabulary before deployment while there may be a tendency for people using Semantic XHTML to throw keywords at the wall and see if they stick (however, Eric mentioned that the XFN (lowercase) core group debated whether to include me in the first release of their spec). Neither technology mandates either approach. If either of these tendencies to exist, they must be cultural.

I think there is value in the ad hoc culture and more importantly closeness of Semantic XHTML assertions to human readable markup of the lowercase semantic web and the rigor of the uppercase Semantic Web.

It may be useful to transform a rel="" assertions to RDF assertions via GRDDL or a GRDDL-inspired XMDP transformation.

I will find it useful to bring RDF into XHTML, probably via RDF/A, which I like to call Hard Core Semantic XHTML.

Marc Canter as usual expressed himself from the audience (and on his blog). Among other things Marc asked why Eric didn’t use the word metadata. I don’t recall Eric’s answer, but I commend him for not using the term. I’d be even happier if we could avoid the word semantic as well. Those are rants for another time.

Addendum: I didn’t make it to the session this afternoon, but Tantek Çelik‘s slides for The Elements of Meaningful XHTML are an excellent introduction to Semantic XHTML for anyone familiar with [X]HTML.

Addendum 20050314: Eric Meyer has posted his slides.

7 Responses

  1. I’m a semantic XHTML enthusiast and I’ve just tested myself in this subject, writing the solutions for the Tantek Çelik slides items.
    But, at Block of Code slide, I’ve enclosed address, inline and normal (within the pagragraf tag) with the code tag.
    I know that the proposal there, is: pre and code combined.
    I would appreciate an explanation to my mistake! Thanks.

  2. In that example everything within the pre and code tags is code. Ignore that it looks like CSS and contains the text ‘inline’ and ‘address’. It could be C code rendered in HTML. Using CSS code as the example is probably needlessly confusing.

  3. Semantic Web Round Up

    I’ve written a few entries about the Semantic Web already, but since my deadline is nearing on my essay for the MSc. course I’m doing, I’ve started rounding up a few links that I think is worthwhile sharing as well….

  4. […] I don’t feel up to writing a real Ontology is Underrated essay, not least because I don’t have strong feelings either way, apart from seeing mischaracterization (link only tangentially relevant to subject of this post) put to rest. […]

  5. […] I intended to close my statement with a preemption of the claim that use of semantic web technologies mandates hashing everything out in committees before deployment (wrong), but I trailed off with something I don’t recall. The committee myth came up again during the discussion anyway. […]

  6. […] I’ve mentioned RDFa a couple times in passing. […]

  7. […] So why would RDFa be of interest to developers? In a word, laziness. There is no process to follow for developing an RDF vocabulary (ironic), you can freely reuse existing vocabularies and tools, not write your own parsers, and trust that really smart people are figuring out the hard stuff for you (I believe the formal background of the Semantic Web is a long-term win). Or you might just want to, as Ben says “express metadata about other documents (embedded images)” which is trivial for RDF as images have URIs. […]

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