I’d never received an Open Letter until Alan Morrison posted one earlier today in response to an interview I gave to Straight.com about microformats and the (lowercase) semantic web. For the sake of completeness, here’s what he wrote:
Chris, judging from your interview in Straight.com, you seem like a thoughtful guy. But you don’t seem to understand that the Microformat and Semantic Web folks aren’t that far apart. You cite the prevalence of non-standard HTML to support your contention that we’ll never use ontologies. But in the same article, you say the comic book store you frequent has its own iPhone app. So people can write their own iPhone apps (or at least have friends write apps for them), but they can’t put together their own ontologies?
Simple tagging has obvious benefits–just look at popularity of folksonomies. I don’t disagree with you at all there. But one of the advantages of the RDF/RDFS/OWL family of standards is that it’s a metadata umbrella–it can make use of various kinds of metadata, and then add to these. But it certainly helps if the metadata are consistent.
The big advantage of RDF, which you seem to miss entirely, is that it’s a data model that improves on RDBMSes from a data integration standpoint. It’s a data model truly designed for the Web. Have you thought about this at all from the data model level?
I’m not a religious zealot when it comes to standards. Microformats sounds as reasonable as RDFa to me, except that the former have no infrastructure underneath them and aren’t consistent.
PwC devoted an entire issue of its Tech Forecast to describing the necessity for this infrastructure and how companies are now using the one the W3C’s developed. If you read this, it might fill in some knowledge gaps for you. It does seem to make good sense for you to build on what others have started, even if you quibble with bits and pieces of it.
I responded to his post with the following comment:
Thanks Alan. I’m happy to take all criticism, corrections and feedback on my perspective. I certainly don’t think that I have all the answers, but I do try to be pragmatic.
I think that I do understand the value of RDF — in theory — but in my world — the social web — I’ve seen very few success stories, or examples in the wild, where RDF and its sibling technologies have made anything demonstrably easier or more ubiquitous. I’ve had the praises of RDF et al sung to me for many years, and yet I consistently see companies large and small run for the hills when it’s mentioned.
Meanwhile, microformats have seen much wider adoption in the wild on the open web — not least of which came in recent successes as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo all have shipped products that leverage various microformats (imperfect though they are, they work with the HTML-based web that people know how to develop for).
Now, I do think that there are success stories out there for RDF et al… namely in the medical and pharmaceutical industries. But what I’ve heard is that those companies are loathe to share the fruits of their labor with the wider community, resulting in non-interoperable ontologies. I thought interoperability was the whole point!
As with most of the things I work on, I can be convinced of most anything if you can demonstrate successes that make sense to me and that resonate beyond me — to unfamiliar audiences. Part of the work of a designer-slash-web-evangelist is listening to the problems that people are experiencing, synthesize what they’re saying, and then putting together the people who are all having the same issues [so that they can collaborate on solutions].
Outside of academic circles, I’ve just not seen the kind of human-scale successes that convince me that the world at large is ready to contemplate the intricacies of getting involved with the semantic web. I’d love to be proven wrong here, so if you have examples to the contrary (besides arguments), I’d be happy to check them out!
So, am I wrong or misguided? I’m waiting for the social network that’s built on RDF that my mom will use, but I’ve just not seen it yet! (And yes, she is on Facebook now!).
Also, by “human-scale”, what I mean is technology that can be authored at the level of the individual — with little depth of learning. HTML is what I would consider “human-scale”, since a lot of people figure out how to write it without formal computer science training. Microformats nestle nicely into HTML writing skills, and so I consider them human-scale.