One of the things I heard a lot of people buzzing about at the Semantic Technology Conference last week was whether or not the Semantic Web would be more accessible to people (as a concept) if it were called something else. Apparently people don’t like the word “semantic.” I sometimes forget that, and then I read something like this (admittedly fairly old) article about Tim Berners-Lee in the San Francisco Chronicle.
The framing metaphor – Berners-Lee as Tolkien – is nonsensical. You could swap out any author who invented a culture with its own language and the metaphor would work just as well (or just as poorly). And, it’s ridiculous to imply that the significant factor of the WWW is that it’s based on an invented language; computer programming languages and markup languages have a long history that predates the WWW. In the end, this metaphor does nothing to illuminate the social, economic, and cultural impact of the Web. (It does have a handy subtext, though – apparently people who are interested in the underlying workings of the Web are nerds, just like people who are passionate about Lord of the Rings.)
With frequent references to “futuristc” and “magic” and “special codes,” the Chronicle article starts out by oversimplifying the concepts of Semantic Web and quickly shifts to steeping them in acronyms and dense technical jargon. If this really is the view of the Semantic Web that’s out there, then perhaps it does need a more consumer-friendly name.
I’ve been reading about these themes on Jeff Pollock’s blog today. I found it interesting that, four years apart, he had a post called Pedantic Web or Semantic Web? (2003) and another called Semantic or Pedantic? Web 3.0, Master Data, SOA and Data Integ (April 2007). Clearly this issue still hasn’t been resolved. Of course, if you read the complete posts, the question goes deeper than just what to call this thing. (Though, Jeff seems prepared to accept the emerging consumer-friendly term Web 3.0, and I have to concede that there’s a precedent there, which tends to speed up adoption of new concepts. As an added bonus, the term is ambiguous enough not to be either scary or exclusionary.)
The bigger question is how to get everyone to understand what the Semantic Web is all about. And it seems that people are finally getting around to the point where we don’t need everyone to understand it. This is apparent in the tone of Jeff’s two posts. The first one has a tone that seems to be calmly trying to explain a complex new vision of the world. Imagine all the possibilities, it seems to be saying. Four years later, he just gets down to business. Ok, you don’t have to get into all the wonder of it all, but here’s what you can do with it. The new tone is practical, unapologetic, and displays a good kind of impatience, I think.
Very few people are inclined to understand the magical codecs that make MP3s possible, but even my dad can load songs onto his iPod.