Thursday, 2 October 2008

I'm Just Arguing About Semantics...

While many of my colleagues (and probably yours) remain dismissive of virtual worlds and the prospects for web3D (at least in my lifetime, which given current health constraints may not be as long as I might fancy), they get positively moist when they ponder the imponderables of web3.0. Much of this web3.0 mullarkey remains a mystery to me. In fact, it's taken me long enough to get some kind of handle on web2.0. But that hasn't stopped me staring into the middle distance and letting my mind free-wheel on the topic.

While a fair chunk of the web3.0 vision thang revolves around "ubiquity" and "distribution", a significant slice is taken up with the notion of the semantic web. In techie terms, the ambition is a web in which computers can perform their own analysis, do stuff and find stuff out. Because computers are still basically stupid, even the really really clever ones, they need lots of help if they are to do all of this. According to wikipedia: "The semantic web is a vision of information that is understandable by computers, so that they can perform more of the tedious work involved in finding, sharing and combining information on the web."

In truth, of course, the label of "web X.0" is simply a convenience, an attempt to convey a Big Picture view. In reality, there are no web generations, but rather the evolution of the web is a continuum in which it is not always possible - and certainly never actually necessary - to make such generational distinctions.

In this Big Picture view of the web, we could probably characterise web 1.0 as the Era of the Individual: you make your own way through the web, sharing information only by digital word-of-mouth, and responsible for discovering everything you need. Web 2.0 I would characterise as the Era of Sharing: you are all-but-permanently digitally connected with friends,acquaintances and groups with common interests, sharing with them your travels through the web in realtime, and benefitting from the wider range of experiences and knowledge available within the various groups to which you belong, giving you a more productive and more social web experience. In techie terms, we have the introduction of scores of social tools to help people share stuff, and the development of mashups to pull together diverse information sources to form common, shareable views.

At the moment I don't really know how to characterise web 3.0. Howzabout Era of the Bot? A web in which much of the drudgery involved in finding what you want is taken away by our shiny, digital, computer pals; a web with which you can have an intelligent interaction. It sounds ambitious - and I am curious as to how this will combine with the "Social Web" of web 2.0. web3.0 will also offer intelligent applications, with natural language processing... hmmm... "natural language processing" eh?

In my idle moments, I've been wondering about this semantic lark, and the underlying reasons for it. And concluding that web 2.0 already has a semantic web element and that - like Soylent Green - the semantic web element "is people."

The highly-connected, social mesh that we inhabit now is full of 'em, sharing their ideas and opinions, filling gaps in our knowledge, offering services, advice and support (and all the while, using 'natural language processing'). While noting that "folks is folks" and you don't always get a reliable, consistent service - it is also true to say that people are pretty adaptable and good at interpreting, interpolating and extrapolating stuff, something their machine counterparts will be struggling to achieve for years to come yet.

And for me this social mesh reaches its online apogee in the social, immersive, shared experience found in virtual worlds.

Hmmm... so in conclusion: where semantic web3.0 can be characterised by HAL, perhaps semantic web2.0 can be characterised by AL.

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