Semantic web as social enjoyment

The recent launch of, the first application of the semantic web engine being developed by Danny Hillis’ new company, Metaweb, was written up by, among others, Esther Dyson, Tim O’Reilly, and Martin Heller, from whom I received an invitation to try Freebase. (Note: I don’t yet seem to have invitations that I can dispense.)

If you scan those articles and the blogospheric halo surrounding them, you’ll soon glean the essentials. Freebase is like Wikipedia in the sense that it’s an open data project. But where Wikipedia is a database of unstructured articles, Freebase is a database of categorized and related items. You can use it to add or edit items and, more ambitiously, to create or extend the categories themselves.

There’s been a lot of discussion about how this approach does or doesn’t match up with the W3C’s vision for the semantic web, and the suite of standards and technologies associated with it. I’ll leave that to the experts and simply reiterate one crucial point. The authors of the semantic web are going to be people, not machines. And people will only want to play the game if it’s easy, natural, and fun.

Early indications are that Freebase is going to be a whole lot of fun. In his walkthrough Tim O’Reilly calls it addictive, and explains why. Because the system thinks in terms of relationships among types of items, a single act of data entry can produce multiple outcomes.

Tim’s writeup gives a couple of examples of what that’s like. Here’s mine. I found a record for myself in the system, sourced from Wikipedia. I updated it to say that I’m the author of the book Practical Internet Groupware. Then I added that Tim O’Reilly was the editor of my book. That single edit altered the records on both ends of the author/editor relationship. My book’s record now showed Tim O’Reilly as its editor, and Tim’s record sprouted a Books Edited list that contained my book as its first item.

Nice. This is just a Hello World example, of course, but it has the feel of something that people will be able to understand, will want to use, and will enjoy in a social way.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a column entitled WinFS and social information management. It concluded like so:

Developers have always tried, and so far always failed, to define reusable objects that meet the needs of knowledge workers in the real world. Meanwhile, in the era of social computing, we’re learning to watch for the patterns that emerge as people interact in information-rich contexts, and then pave those cow paths. The first WinFS-aware applications, which will be personal information managers with hooks for sharing and synchronization, won’t align with this strategy.

These WinFS applications will, however, enable you to pave your own cow paths, for example by storing and reusing queries. Nobody can know how people will ultimately want to share these contexts among WinFS clients in a peer-to-peer fashion, on WinFS servers when they emerge, and on the global XML Web. So I hope Microsoft will come to see WinFS not only as a platform for developers, but also as an environment in which users can do simple things that yield powerful social effects.

Nowadays a lot of folks say WinFS was doomed from the start and should never have been attempted. I didn’t think that then and don’t now. I did, clearly, wish that WinFS had been part of a strategy of cooperation with the cloud. And I’d still like to see some version of that scenario play out.


  1. John

    another interesting post… :-)

    Freebase is, indeed, interesting, and I agree with the importance – at least there – of making the process ‘fun’ and engaging as part of incentivising the early population of the network.

    I see no real disconnect between the pragmatic solutions of Metaweb, Radar Networks, Talis, Garlik et al and the detail of the Semantic Web espoused by W3C. What we’re seeing is robust internet-scale implementation of those ideas and specifications, taking us to ‘Web 3.0’ on the back of lessons learned in all those Semantic Web research groups over many years.

    Entirely coincidentally, I recorded a great (he was great, I just had a cold) podcast with Radar Networks’ CEO Nova Spivack last night, which delved into many of these issues. It will be on Nodalities later today, and I’d love to match it with one from Danny Hillis et al.

    In fact… maybe you’d like to come on and share some of your thoughts…? ;-)

  2. I’m immediately skeptical of any Web site that requires JavaScript just to get my browser to the correct start page.

    Seriously guys, there are far better ways to do stuff like this.

  3. Interesting to see (what looks to be) a slick interface for building a semantic wiki – the problem of letting normal people create structured info + schema is a tricky one, and making it a ‘whole lot of fun’ is probably a prerequisite (writing RDF or OWL (or even XML) by hand isn’t very much fun for most people :)

    We wrote a white paper recently comparing semantic wikis to another approach we’re working on for making it easier to enhance text on vanilla web pages with structured info – which takes an unorthodox route via sticky notes / tagging / connections layered on top of normal websites rather than scraping/importing structured info from existing sites and databases – if curious, Google ‘enhancing documents textensor’ or go to:-

  4. Tom – while I’m not one of the front-end people at Metaweb, I share your concern about the requirement for JavaScript. I was involved in the Web Accessibility Initiative from its founding, and still occasionally use Lynx. However, my understanding is that this is the way things are now in part because it gets the editing and autocompletion capabilities up and running quickly. JavaScript-free read-only abilities are on the to-do list (though pretty far down), not least so that search engines can see our stuff.

    Since I’m writing anyway… here’s another short walkthrough. I was doing some data gardening related to the “person” type, and saw Jon Udell in the list. I’d corresponded with him a bit while I was a tools guy at O’Reilly (note that in Tim’s walkthrough, I’m described as the only other “key person” at O’Reilly Media – bad labeling on the connection between employer and employee, there), and figured he was a likely alpha user. Sure enough, he had edited his own description and added some properties. I noted that his place of birth was “Philadelphia,” which was odd; our cities tend to be named with their state included. Sure enough, “Philadelphia” had been created accidentally by some other user as a “location,” and then Jon had reused it. So I:
    1) Changed Jon’s place of birth to “Philadelphia, Pennsylvania” (which is a “location” and a “city/town”).
    2) Added a type to “Philadelphia”: “duplicate.”
    3) Added a property to “Philadelphia”: it is a duplicate of “Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.”
    4) Removed the “location” type from “Philadelphia” to keep it from coming up in autocomplete for other location properties.
    By marking it as a duplicate, if someone does end up using it, our topic merge tool can find it and its namesake and combine their properties. This will be more heavily automated as we gain confidence in our detection algorithms.

  5. What you said. What Paul said too, this is altogether close enough to the standards to be part of the Semantic Web (see RDF schemas and Metaweb types on freebase).

    I also agree re. WinFS, MS fumbled the ball a little there. They could in effect have claimed a big chunk of Semantic Web development real estate. But I suspect their ongoing Entities-related developments sees them back on track. How well their designs will overlap with those of (Semantic) Web architecture remains to be seen, but I’m optimistic they will be within bridging distance.

  6. Interesting to read about Freebase. But it really reminds me about the semantic standard Topic Maps (ISO 13250). As in Topic Maps topics are essential and they have types (topic types). There are also associations between topics. So why not use the standard Topic Maps and open it up like it’s done in Freebase?

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