What is the semantic web?

A colleague named John Markoff wrote an article for the “New York Times” in 2006 that sparked quite a heated discussion, which continues to this day. He proposed, early in the scheme of things, but certainly not for the first time, that the term “Web 3.0” be used to describe the Internet’s next evolutionary step, which he predicted would be marked by a flood of “smart applications.” Not to sound like a 10-year-old on a road trip, but, “Are we there yet?”

No, we are not, but don’t get obsessed with the number scheme; if it did, you’d have to set forward progress to roughly Web 2.6 or so, because the fact is that evolution, of any kind, is not that precise or predictable. Evolution is gradual for the most part, but “punctuated,” as paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould observed, by occasional periods of rapid change. In the case at hand, there was a flurry of advancements that have now leveled off a bit, but a key “enabling technology” is the still emerging Semantic Web.

What’s in a name (or number)?

Clearly, the Web is moving into a new era, one that features more of those “smart applications” that will be empowered and advanced by adding more semantics to raw data. Does this evolutionary breakthrough, still in process, really qualify the Web to go up to 3.0? In fact, what does “Web 2.0” mean? Why didn’t anyone call the first iteration of the information superhighway “version 1”? In the simplest way possible, here is a reasonable description of what the version numbers attached to “Web” actually mean:

Web 1.0: At the beginning (sounds like the beginning of another famous tale) there were AOL, Geocities and Hotmail. The early days were all about read-only content, static HTML websites, and browsing from “link lists” like Yahoo!

Web 2.0: As technologies matured, and so did people, user-generated content and “read-write” interactivity arrived on the scene. People were no longer mere consumers. Ordinary people (outside the IT industry) started contributing their energy, information, and ideas through blogs and sites like Flickr, YouTube, Digg, and the “social media space.” The line between consumers and content publishers became increasingly blurred as Web 2.0 inched towards the next revision number.

Web 3.0: If implemented consistently with the most publicized dreams and visions (“plans and strategies,” if you prefer), Web 3.0 will be the Semantic Web. Clarity and usefulness would come from giving meaning to the data, leading to personalization to iGoogle, smart search like never before imagined, and “behavior-based advertising” tailored to individual consumers.

Same data, different lens

Certainly the term “Web 2.0”, which never reached any kind of critical mass outside of the tech-savvy demographic, has at least come to have, over time, a stable definition. We can safely call it a focus on interactivity and interoperability, between apps and people, using custom application programming interfaces (APIs), widgets, and even social actions like tagging. When “Web 2.0” first entered the “digital lexicon,” many people thought it was pointless and, in fact, railed and criticized its use.

Today, “Web 2.0” is an industry standard term, if not a popularly understood one, and its history suggests that “Web 3.0” at least has a good chance of adoption, as a word, anyway. As a technology, environment, tool, or gateway to “virtual reality,” Web 3.0 will thrive as our technology and content get smarter and smarter, individually and together. Adding meaning to data with the Semantic Web and microformats, and adding intelligence to applications, means better help for people through natural language searches, semantic searches, “recommendation agents”, decision assistants, etc. .

It’s a journey, not a destination

Except for the fact that people like to label things, we probably wouldn’t bother with version numbers in what is essentially an internet graphics layer. It’s always going to be evolving, but if we have to call it something, at least “Web 3.0” is less confusing (and intimidating) than “Semantic Web” for most people. Whatever it’s called, there will be people who know a lot about how it works and where it is going, and others who range from knowing a little to not knowing at all. It was always like that, as they say.

Web 2.0 (2.6?) And the early movements toward the Semantic Web are directing the World Wide Web toward a more collaborative way of sharing knowledge, the current case of Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium” being the new social aspect of the Web. Social media has had a huge social impact far beyond monitors, keyboards, and browsers. The Semantic Web can bring the Web closer to its final destination of human-machine “understanding” and improved interaction. Web evolution continues without any central organizing authority, plan, or deadline, which is good. Anytime we stop and say, “We’re on 3.0 now,” it will remain just a milestone along the way, as web evolution, punctuated or not, will forever be a journey, not a destination.