Whenever I read about the Semantic Web, I am reminded of Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick. One of my favourite chapters of Moby Dick is chapter 42: The Whiteness of the Whale. Here's an excerpt:
"Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man's soul some alarm, there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me."
The Semantic Web is, in the words of Tim Berners-Lee, "an extension of the current web in which information is given well-defined meaning". I've been following its progress in the context of the weblogging world (aka the blogosphere). With this bias in mind, I've decided there are 3 main types of activity for people who are developing the Semantic Web:
1. Building the foundation. For example, defining what is a URI. This is a deep level of granularity and it is where the Architects of the Web are playing. It's not recommended you get involved at this level, unless your first name is Tim and your second name is Berners-Lee or Bray.
2. Developing applications for the Semantic Web. This is where most of the tech blogging world is at. Unfortunately, it is riven with political and personal battles. On one side are the people who promote Simplicity and ease-of-use in web development - e.g. Dave Winer and Jon Udell. On the other side are those that prefer Complexity, so that they may build more abstract applications. Danny Ayers and Bill Kearney are good examples. NB: if you're looking for tech bloggers who can interpret both sides for you, you can't go past Marc Canter and Don Park.
3. Describing the concepts of the Semantic Web. There are many magazine and website articles that wax poetical about the Semantic Web. It's at a high level of abstraction and essentially it's creating 'buy-in' for the Semantic Web. Examples range from an article in BusinessWeek, to a description of Chandler (an open source web application driven by Mitch Kapor), to the poetic but deeply granular essays of Shelley Powers.
The Semantic Web is being gradually developed in the above 3 ways - laying the architectural foundation, building web applications, and defining it conceptually.
So where does Moby Dick come into it? It's because, like the great Whale, the Semantic Web is an awe-inspiring vision that both attracts and repels people. Some people, like Tim Berners-Lee, see the Semantic Web as a logical and inevitable extension of the Web. Other people dismiss it as not practical and they reckon it never will be. Most people are just confused. What exactly is the Semantic Web?
One way to describe it is that the Semantic Web must be meaningful for both humans and computers. As Shelley Powers' writes on Semantic Web for Poets:
"To be a Semantic Web, it must be mechanical, and therefore precise, mathematical, and ultimately unambiguous. But to be a Semantic Web, it must also encapsulate meaning, context, and embrace ambiguity. Ignore the discontinuities, embrace the discontinuities."
Semantic means "of or relating to meaning". But the problem is, we can't easily define what we mean by a Semantic Web! It's the semanticness of the Semantic Web that appalls me :-0
But what we do know is that the Semantic Web symbolises the future of the World Wide Web. It is our notion of what the Web can and should be, so we continue to hunt it. As Chapter 42 of Moby Dick concludes:
"And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?"