An Evolutionary Revolution

On the shoulders of giants…

A revolution, slowly, is happening to the Web.

Many call the changes that are occuring Web 2.0 and I think the analogy is quite useful. It seems that the Web has reached a degree of stability- browsers are relatively compliant and useful- stuff generally works, which opens up the opportunity for people to innovate.

One vision for the next iteration of the Web is called the Semantic Web. The idea is that we’ll build a web that is structured and meaningful (to computers, not humans). The vision for this comes from Tim Berners-Lee and is essentially distributed knowledge system based on a markup format called RDF, a way to encode logical statements in XML about anything. It is, of course, also extensible on the edges (meaning anyone can add content and meaning to it). That is, if they understand the formats.

The Semantic Web would be a discontinuity from the current Web that we all know, mainly because its primarily for machines and only secondarily for humans. I think we can do better.

The ideas I’m putting across are by no means new to many people, but I’ve been thinking about them this evening in response to a paper we read for class and would like to distill and summarize my viewpoint here.

The above paper presents some interesting technology built on a prototype Semantic Web. The problem is that their rationale for building the Semantic Web is wrong:

…because HTML marries content and presentation into a single representation..

Certainly, HTML can be an intermixing of content and presentation, but it doesn’t have to be- it actually shouldn’t be.

With the advent of CSS and XHTML, markup can now be semantic (notice lowercase ‘s’)- it can have meaningful structure which is independent of how the content is presented in a browser.

So, we already have a web- a web which can be used to create semantic content, yet is, at the same time, presentable to users in its native form. As Tantek Çelik has said, “users first, computers second.”

Going the route of the Semantic Web would be like throwing out the source code for a mature product and rewriting it from scratch. Ask Netscape how well that works!

The Revolution Has Begun

Led by Tantek Çelik, Matt Mullenweg, Eric Meyer, Kevin Marks and others who I’m sure I insult by omitting, a new set of standards, deemed microformats are appearing. These standards specify ways to markup XHTML in ways that give the content some meaning. Some examples include: Votelinks, NoFollow, hCard, hCalendar, podcasting, blogchalking, xfn, RelLicense, RelTag xFolk, and online news.

The promise of microformats is that they offer machine-usable data while at the same time providing human-usable, presentable content.

I think what we’re seeing is a stage of evolution which will have revolutionary impact. This movement toward having semantic, well structured markup which is separated from the presentation will have other fruit as well. In many ways, AJAX, the new buzzword that encompasses all sorts of cool client-side Javascript magic, has been enabled by the maturing of CSS.

Please, let’s forget about trying to build a new Semantic Web, let’s make the one we already have (and love) semantic.

The revolution will be evolutionary.

Viva la revolution!

References:

36 Responses to “An Evolutionary Revolution”

  1. Travis Swicegood Says:

    XFN – the latest evolution in Friendster?

    Warning: Programming-speak stuff coming up

    During my morning reading, I came across Paul M. Jone’s post on the Semantic Web. This guy always has good thoughts if you’re a programmer. Anyway, the article he linked to had some interesting thoughts…

  2. Photo Matt » Ryan on Microformats Says:

    […] Machine Ryan on Microformats April 7th, 2005 1:49 pm File under: Asides Why Microformats rock. « Caption Machine […]

  3. Bud Gibson Says:

    Ryan, I am not insulted by the fact that you did not mention my name but rather elated that you mentioned xFolk. Tantek has been very helpful in moving this along. I expect to have a new iteration this weekend.

  4. ryan Says:

    Bud- I’m excited about xFolk, too. I look forward to seeing what comes of it.

  5. Eric Says:

    I think a lot of the newer semantic-esque pushes in the web development communities are good, I would not put them on the same stratus as something like OWL. I say this because no matter what you do with xhtml and separating content from presentation, you will never be able to define your own data structures and language like you can with rdf and xml in general (ie non-web standard). The idea of the semantic web is that machines can read it in the same way machines read data out of a database. A database provides access to incredible amounts of information and the semantic web is meant to do the same with one very important addition, knowledge. The semantic web is meant to allow composition of new ideas from available information by machines. While xhtml and css are great things, they do not have the power to show extensive releationships between information that is needed to create knowledge.

    This is not to say these are not great technologies! I just think there is an important distinction between the two kinds of technology. In any case iti s all very exciting!!

  6. ryan Says:

    Eric:
    I definitely agree that XHTML is insufficient to replace something like OWL. I also agree that OWL, RDF and the whole group of Semantic Web technologies are definitely more open ended in their capablities. I just want to bring up a few things that I think XHTML has on Semantic Web stuff (which you may agree with, if not, please respond):

    First, you say “While xhtml and css are great things, they do not have the power to show extensive releationships between information that is needed to create knowledge.”

    On the other hand, I think one key ingrediant for creating knowledge is people and microformats are much more comprehensible, meaning that non-W3C, non-MIT and non-Stanford researchers* can actually produce content! What a novel idea!**

    Second, no one’s pushed XHTML. Of course the X in XHTML is supposed to stand for eXtensible, yet no one has successfully tried to extend it in any meaninful ways (that I know of). In other words, who knows what could come of it? Perhaps we could evolve it into something as powerful as RDF or OWL?

    Third, it is apparent by the rapid proliferation of microformats that there is some low-hanging fruit in this area. Low hanging fruit is too tempting to ignore. :-)

    I agree, Eric, there is a distinction between XHTML & friends and RDF & friends. I just want to point out that XHTML’s posse have some advantages when trying to represent semantic comment.

    * These just represent the groups who’ve written papers on the SW which I’ve recently read.
    ** Please excuse the sarcasm.

    Update: sorry I had to edit this comment to get the markup right. Markdown’s being really annoying

  7. Denis de Bernardy Says:

    the semantic web is nonsense

  8. Paul M. Jones Says:

    Ryan said:

    On the other hand, I think one key ingrediant for creating knowledge is people and microformats are much more comprehensible, meaning that non-W3C, non-MIT and non-Stanford researchers* can actually produce content!

    To which Paul says: preach the Word, my brother!

  9. perldude.de » Blog Archive » An Evolutionary Revolution Says:

    […] « Pi Pie An Evolutionary Revolution An Evolutionary Revolution – interesting article about the (r)evoluti […]

  10. Brian Del Vecchio Says:

    I’ve implemented hCalendar in an experimental syndication module for Upcoming.org.
    details here

  11. Joey Says:

    Of course the X in XHTML is supposed to stand for eXtensible, yet no one has successfully tried to extend it in any meaninful ways (that I know of). In other words, who knows what could come of it? Perhaps we could evolve it into something as powerful as RDF or OWL?

    I don’t think this was ever really the intent of XHTML. As I understand it, the X was added because XHTML is an XML version of HTML. The truly extensible format that needs pushing is XML, and that’s exactly what technologies like RDF are doing. XHTML is one application of XML for a specific purpose, but is not supposed to be modified to suit all sorts of other tasks. XML, though, is a way to define new formats – a standard that can be utilized for all sorts of applications.

  12. Lachlan Hunt Says:

    It’s interesting the way you talk about the semantic web and microformats being a way to add semantics to documents, yet the first two examples provided, nofollow and vote-links, are non-semantic nonsense. They’re functional extensions (no better than presentational extensions) designed for a single non-semantic use by search engines.

  13. ryan Says:

    Lachlan-
    I think I have a lower view of what ‘semantic’ means. I would agree that noFollow is not the most meaniful of microformats, yet it is quite useful, isn’t it?

    The same goes for votelinks- they’re useful in that they make the link-graph edges into weighted (or named or whatever) edges. In other words, they become more meaningful. Isn’t that what we’re after.

    And on a more philosophic note, I think extensions’ and formats’ value lie in their facilitation of creating new and useful systems (which read, parse, aggregate, whatever the data).

    Ah, but I’m a pragmatist, so I like to see things that work. YMMV.

  14. theryanking.com » Blog Archive » Folow up on Microformats Says:

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  19. Andy Smith Says:

    … somebody turned off markdown…

  20. Chetan’s monologue » Microformats.org Says:

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    A Semantic Mobs Manifesto for the (r)Evolutionary Web: rejected!

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  22. Danny Ayers, Raw Blog : » Recycled Paper Says:

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  24. Xianghui Says:

    I find the paradoxical title very interesting. Innovations such as microformats are a series of evolutions in technological sense, but from the perspective of business and society, they are revolutionary. This is actually what I want to say in my working book “Grassroots Revolution on the Internet”.

  25. vikas talk » Blog Archive » Microformats (semantic web) Says:

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  27. webdirections » Blog Archive » So just what are these microformat thingies? Says:

    […] ohn’s presentation is “Microformats: an evolutionary revolution” (nod to Ryan King for the title, from a blog post of his. It captures the spi […]

  28. Sahibinden Says:

    Bud- I’m excited about xFolk, too. I look forward to seeing what comes of it…

  29. resim Says:

    I find the paradoxical title very interesting. Innovations such as microformats are a series of evolutions in technological sense, but from the perspective of business and society, they are revolutionary. This is actually what I want to say in my working book “Grassroots Revolution on the Internet?.

  30. RoMeO Says:

    it is apparent by the rapid proliferation of microformats that there is some low-hanging fruit in this area. Low hanging fruit is too tempting to ignore. :-)

  31. ilanlar Says:

    I agree, Eric, there is a distinction between XHTML & friends and RDF & friends. I just want to point out that XHTML’s posse have some advantages when trying to represent semantic comment.

  32. Tercüme bürosu Says:

    Bud- I’m excited about xFolk, too. I look forward to seeing what comes of it..

  33. Lazar Says:

    Ryan,

    I’m not a programmer nor a techie of any sort. I am a digital marketing strategist and I came across microformats several times already. Me and my colleagues are styill trying to understand what kind of tools microformats could offer to both web users and companies. Do you have any examples, or scenarios, how microformats could actually be used by somebody such as Amazon or e-Bay?

  34. canlı atv izle Says:

    ohn’s presentation is “Microformats: an evolutionary revolution? (nod to Ryan King for the title, from a blog post of his. It captures the spi

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