Ah, version number battles. Whether in office application wars or DBMS wars, version number one-upmanship is a staple of the industry.
The RSS wars opened up a new popular front, using version number tactics to vie for legitimacy as the standard for Web feeds. Going even more “meta,” the “Web 2.0″ concept emerged to near media hysteria, and one faction of Web experts felt a little left in the cold. You maybe have heard the term “Web 3.0″ emerging from semantic Web technologists. I do hope this bit of version one-upmanship isn’t an act of war. Here’s one clear case when it’s worthwhile to give peace a chance.
“Think globally, act locally” was the famous saying of flower-child activists. The semantic Web is not a new idea. Almost as soon as the Web started blooming, its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, started looking for a better way to organize its information. The idea did not take off as dramatically as the Web itself, in part because there was a perception, right or wrong, that Web publishers had to learn complicated techniques to adapt their sites to a centrally planned Web world view. People started to assume that the semantic Web meant that they had to act globally.
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“Web 2.0″ came along to drive changes in convention, not technology, because there is almost no new technology in Web 2.0. Much of what it entails is thinking about how a Web site’s resources can be used globally, in ways that the webmaster might not even be able to anticipate. Then you use well-established technology to make local changes on your site, adapting it for global usage. Not much different from what semantic Web was really advocating, but Web 2.0 had the benefit of emerging more gradually, through a series of developments each of which a Web publisher could pick up and apply in a day.
The good news is that Web 2.0′s core ideas each represent a small step toward the semantic Web. Small steps don’t satisfy everyone, hence the “Web 3.0″ play to upstage the upstart — and also to ride some of its marketing coattails. There is some technical merit to the challenge, but there is also the danger that version wars merely induce the audience, Web publishers in this case, to roll their eyes and tune out. I think it’s important to acknowledge and understand how far Web 2.0 gets us towards a better Web so we can train a clear eye on where and how to target further advocacy.
Web feeds provide semantically controlled information about segments or episodes on Web sites. Semantic control comes from the design and documentation of the data itself, and not from a system of associated metadata, which is the classic semantic Web approach. It’s rather churlish not to accept Web feeds as a tool for placing Web content into some level of context. Such feeds require the Webmaster to do the work of developing that context, a significant step. Certainly the most semantically rich and Web friendly flavor of Web feed, Atom, has several semantic Web experts in its community, to the benefit of all. Web feeds greatly expand the ways in which we can read the Web.
User-generated content such as wikis, forums, and weblog comments are probably real disappointments to the semantic Web community, but there has also been a lot of work in, for example, semantically enabled wikis so users can provide richer tagging and linking. Of course this assumes the users are savvy, diligent, and trustworthy enough to do so, but that was always a problem semantic Web was going to have to tackle. At least there is now an explosion of new ways to write the Web.
Mashups combine data from two or more sources on the Web to create a new Destination site. This encourages Web publishers to expose data in a rich, transparent manner, and to recognize that some of their most valuable content comes from their community of users. Mashups provide a focus for improving Web APIs, and thus make it easier than ever to re-purpose material on the Web.
Read, write, and re-purpose the Web. When you boil it down this is the true promise of the semantic Web. There’s a long way to go, but at least Web 2.0 unlocks a world of ideas, creating an opportunity for further advancement. As that’s happening, we should all be so busy enriching the global information space (and fighting spammers) that version numbers are the last thing on our minds.