All men are Socrates

Tim Bray, co-creator of XML and a member of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Technical Advisory Group, weighs in responding to Clay Shirky’s attack on
the Semantic Web.  He admits he is not a total supporter of Tim
Berners-Lee’s Semantic Web vision, but tries to defend a less ambitious
version of the idea.  Yet he inadvertantly proves Clay’s
point. 

Here’s Tim’s argument about why the Semantic Web would actually be useful:

“Right now, if I hear of some company by name (for example, letÂ’s imagine a
company called “Example Corporation”) I know that if I stick
www. in front of the name and .com after it, then I
can point a web browser at www.example.com and find out a bunch
of stuff….”

“So imagine that given any www.example.com, I could count on
there also being a data.example.com, which would typically have
all these facts available in some straightforward XML dialect, so that I
could use a program to do the tedious basic factfinding work.”

What Tim wants would indeed be useful.  It’s the equivalent for
corporate Websites of the ancillary information that can be gleaned
from personal Weblogs: who the author is, who his or her friends are,
and whether there’s an RSS syndication feed for the blog.  As Clay
points out, though, the Weblog community has actually solved this
problem.  Not through the Semantic Web, but through clever
hacks.  The one for personal information is FOAF,
and the one for syndication feeds is RSS autodiscovery.  As Clay
notes, autodiscovery is widely adopted depite the lack of any formal
standards work:

“The real
lesson of RSS autodiscovery is that developers can create valuable
meta-data without needing any of the trappings of the Semantic
Web. Were the whole effort to be shelved tomorrow, successes like RSS
autodiscovery would not be affected in the slightest.”

Tim Bray makes the valid point that betting against Tim Berners-Lee is
dangerous.  After all, hypertext was also considered a formalistic
failure before the Web.  But here’s the difference.  Web
hypertext caught on because it was a lightweight solution to a real
problem: There was all sorts of content on the Internet but no flexible
mechanism to link it together and annotate it.  Proponents of the
Semantic Web, are still trying to invent problems to fit their
solutions.  When true pain points arise, like RSS autodiscovery,
developers come up with quick-and-dirty solutions. 

In a similar vein, I’ve spoken with several venture capitalists recently about Technorati and Feedster,
two aggregation services for RSS feeds.  The VCs see the buzz
around blogs, syndication, and social networking.  Yet they can’t
figure out function the aggregation services provide.  The best
argument I’ve been able to come up with is the following: Technorati
and Feedster are on the path to the Semantic Web that actually
works.  They are attacking a very big problem — the
machine-readable Web — by addressing small problems that are real and
immediate. 

(The title of this post, BTW, is an
old illustration of the problem with syllogisms.  Clay’s main
critique of the Semantic Web is that it relies on such formal logic,
which maps poorly to the real world.  The joke goes: “Socrates was
a man.  All men are mortal.  Therefore, all men are Socrates!)