W3C home > Mailing lists > Public > semantic-web@w3.org > April 2017

Re: Keeping the Faith

From: Hugh Glaser <hugh@glasers.org>
Date: Sun, 30 Apr 2017 22:34:40 +0100
Cc: "semantic-web@w3.org" <semantic-web@w3.org>
Message-Id: <36D123E3-C59E-4A96-80F1-CD6F8CE833C1@glasers.org>
To: Dan Brickley <danbri@danbri.org>
Thanks Dan,
Great, great post - nice read for a Sunday afternoon :-)
If I may presume to add a couple of observations.

Tim's vision of A Semantic Web:- presuming, as some people do, that it will/can be realised by what we call The Semantic Web is a mistake, and ignores the historic sweep of how technologies get developed and adopted.
I have always said that we will recognise success when people refer to a Web, and the Semantic Web people are outraged because it should be called the Semantic Web, after all their hard work.
<strokes white beard/>
This is the way of R&D.
I used to be functional (doing pure functional research), and it was always strange to me that people might think that ML/Miranda/Haskell might ever become the language of choice for programming.
No. But the ideas explored and refined would find their way into the mainstream - that would be success.
Functional programming is a success - it's (or some of it) is in Java and Python, after all (not to mention Clojure, etc.). And without those years of research, the understanding would probably not be there for it to happen.
Simula or Simscript or Smalltalk or whatever are almost long gone, but OO is a success (some would say unfortunately).

I think so with a "Semantic Web"; The Semantic Web work is informing understanding.
The way for research to move into the mainstream is to recognise the really valuable bits and see how they might fit in.
Some of us may have believed that Linked Data was that - do we still?
Schema.org and microdata, anyone?

Personally, I find that Linked Data is a good/appropriate technology for a lot of things.
That's enough for me.

> On 30 Apr 2017, at 11:24, Dan Brickley <danbri@danbri.org> wrote:
> 
> 
> 
> On 29 April 2017 at 00:11, Brent Shambaugh <brent.shambaugh@gmail.com> wrote:
> > General Question:
> >
> > How do you keep the faith or vision with respect to semantic web and
> > linked data? I'm also in an area where there is not a lot of venture
> > capital (well some) nor (many) people having a lot of understanding of
> > the area. At least it does not score you a talk. Is the field of
> > dreams mentality of "if you build it, he will come"?
> 
> First and foremost, this effort is not a religion. People do seem to care about it, and the larger notion of a healthy standards-based, vendor-neutral etc World Wide Web, with the passion that others do reserve for religious matters. This may or may not be a bug! That passion can drive creativity and collaboration but it can also foster stubbornness and tribal thinking.
> 
> W3C's RDF work embodies a lot of good ideas, and has proved useful, but it is just one tool in the toolkit. When we were working on the RDF specs nearly 20 years ago, it felt sometimes like they were positioned in a "david vs goliath" struggle with the XML family of technologies. There were competing visions for what data on the Web might amount to. In later years RDF-based approaches get contrasted with JSON or SQL/CSV or whatever, but the debate often takes roughly the same form. Do we treat data as a graph representation of factual claims, or do we focus on the concrete form that such claims might take - as an HTML or XML DOM or a JSON tree or a simple flat table? And the answer is generally the same --- that there is value in both perspectives. When we neglect the concrete notation / file format details, the usability of the concrete formats suffers (c.f. RDF/XML); when we neglect the abstract commonalities, information becomes needlessly fragmented across different representations and publication systems.
> 
> This community has always tended a little towards blaming two things for the (real or perceived) failure of its ideas to burst triumphantly into the technology mainstream. We have blamed poor syntaxes, leading to a range of specs and experiments endlessly pursuing a more usable notation --- from RDF/XML through RDFa (and its hybrid cousin, Microdata), JSON-LD, Turtle, N-Triples, as well as mapping-based systems like GRDDL and CSVW. And we have also blamed failures in understanding. There is a persistent tone around here that eventually the wider world will "get it" and see the point, value, importance etc of the approach to data embodied in RDF, Semantic Web and Linked Data. I think there is some truth to the claim that RDF was the right idea at the wrong time, and that the success of graph databases shows that there is a more mainstream technology audience waiting for it. But there is also some self-deception here, and failure to face up to a fairly boring truth. Dealing with RDF data is difficult, annoying, frustrating and suchlike. Not because of any intrinsic failing in the W3C specs, tools or practices, but because dealing with highly hetrogenous, lumpy, quirky dataset with all kind of bits missing, and all kinds of unanticipated extensions or novel patterns arbitrarily appearing in it, is just a really hard problem space to be working in. There is something of a tragedy of the commons pattern here. Any individual project can generally get by without needing RDF, and may make progress faster focussing on their exact data format needs using any of XML, JSON, CSV or whatever. But when we stand back and look at the wider Web, this creates a very fragmented landscape. This kind of thinking motivated W3C's GRDDL work (using XSLT to map XML files into RDF, e.g. see http://www.xml.com/pub/a/2000/08/09/rdfdb/ https://www.w3.org/2000/08/w3c-synd/ etc.
> 
> Some years ago, Murray Maloney (of SGML and XML fame) popped into W3C Semantic Web Interest Group meeting we held as part of the TPAC conference. I forget his exact words but afterwards he made the point that it reminded him of the (in Brent's terms) faith and vision that people in the SGML/XML community also had, and that it might be that we were attaching those things overly specifically to some particular technology. He was right. Round about that time, Linked Data took off as a variation of the Semantic Web idea, but with more of an emphasis on open data in the public Web, and less emphasis on fancy rule systems. Two healthy consequences of that for RDF was that it re-affirmed the link to the broader Web standards community --- by focussing on putting data in that actual Web and using related standards like HTTP well --- and also it tapped into the underlying motivations Murray had noted. We had perhaps mis-identified our common interest as being RDF, but for many of us it was more about data sharing / knowledge sharing / large scale collaborative infrastructure, and RDF was just a means to an end. RDF is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
> 
> If you look at the history there are also plenty of things to feel good about. When the Web was young, RDF was always talked about in terms of its rivalry with XML. But then if you look at the actual people involved over the years, those individuals (I won't namecheck everyone) have had careers that touch into XML, RDF, open data, JSON, CSV, whatever tool gets the job done. The rivalries and "XYZ is the ABC killer" framing, aren't the story of how these technologies inter-relate in practice. 
> 
> The RDF community has the endearing tendency to over-criticise itself for not single-handedly saving the planet from its perceived data-sharing failings. I think we should instead just take a bow and acknowledge that we've done good here. We built some useful tools and technologies that are finding a niche, and we've progressed the state of the art around annoyingly heterogeneous data handling. Is it the last word in anything, absolutely not. Is RDF (or Perl or XML or ...) "dead", ... absolutely not. Are factual triples the answer to 'fake news'? Not quite. Could our Web technologies be improved, the representations made simultaneously more usable, expressive and useful --- probably/maybe/dunno. People worry too much. These are good tools in a growing Web standards toolkit and it is worth continuing to work on them, but also worth reminding ourselves that this isn't in opposition to the wider technology landscape. It is nothing but healthy for "RDF people" to take a break from thinking just about these technologies and to spend some time in related work, e.g. Javascript, Web components, machine learning, security ... rather than slipping into thinking about our efforts here as a kind of religious struggle against the unbelievers...
> 
> Thinking of particular practical areas I'd suggest as worth putting time into: ShACL and Shex for RDF validation may turn out to be very important. Also for my part, I have worked mostly on Schema.org these last years. It is very widely used across the entire Web, and is broadly in the "RDF family", but currently tends to be published and consumed on a page-by-page basis rather than site-by-site. I suspect the latter is where we'll see more scope for integration with the tools and techniques of this community (SPARQL etc) and hope to put some time into that in the coming months. 
> 
> verbosely,
> 
> Dan
> 
> (somwhat absentee SemWeb Interest Group chair)
Received on Sunday, 30 April 2017 21:35:13 UTC

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