The Future of the Semantic Web is Here Today and is Evenly Distributed

by Steve Mallett

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This is a follow up on my previous essay Applying Distributed XML to The Open Source Paradigm Shift. In that essay I write that we must wrestle away the power of a few sites to own all our data by publishing our contributions to the web in distributed XML files like we do with RSS.

In this essay I will argue that the tools to do this exist now, and that all factors point toward a future of owning and publishing all our contributions. The future of the Semantic Web is Here and is evenly distributed today. So, let's get started.

To start weblogs and CMS' are the new printing press except take the printing press and inject it with a million gallons of caffeine. This is not new and I won't expound on it further. If you don't accept this as a universally acknowledged truth than stop reading now.

Why is this so? Two primary reasons.

One is RSS. RSS (a simple XML document) eases the communication of writing and ideas between people.

Secondly, it is easy so to publish. Weblogs produce RSS and the written word for us easily. In turn these are easily consumed through aggregators which are plentiful.

Hence we publish easily, we aggregate easily, we read easily. See a pattern here?

Now let's apply this against one website that owns a lot of user's contributions: Amazon. (I hate to pick on Amazon. I like Amazon & think they've done a lot of great things. I just don't want to see them owning the semantic web.) At Amazon we have user's contributions in the form of book reviews. A person must log into Amazon, fill out their forms, write their review, log out, and all that data belongs essentially to Amazon. It's there for people surfing Amazon, but other book stores certainly can't have it & forget about removing them. [see aggregator innovation and competition below]

Now, would you rather publish your book review using Amazon's form or the weblog you use many times a week? Would you like to write your book review on Amazon and then write again on your weblog that you wrote a review - possibly writing the review twice? How about your local bookstore? Are you going to write one for them as well?

It makes much more practical sense to do this through your weblog with a side effect that if we put your book review into an rss-like feed it is readable through such a widespread amount of aggregators that you only have to write once & be read by millions.

What does this mean? It kills redundant work. Publish once, read everywhere. This is the primarily reason why publishing many different kinds of XML documents through weblogs and CMS' is a killer combination in making a distributed semantic web possible. People hate redundant work.

The most obvious example where redundant work has been noticed recently has been the proliferation of social networking sites like Orkut and Friendster. You had to reproduce the same data across every site. This didn't work out so well. In fact people were sick of these sites pretty fast. Now imagine producing, by hand, an rss feed for every rss aggregator in existence. Worst. Idea. Ever.

We also see an incredible amount of innovation and competition among rss aggregators. Who doesn't think competition is a good idea? Nobody, right. Because we produce rss once and everyone can have it we have spurned one of the most exciting times in recent history. This model induces the freedom to tinker. Barnes & Noble, FatBrain (remember them?) could be back in business in a month if we adopted this model for book reviews. Same for your local bookshop. The onus becomes doing the best job with the data. Just like rss aggregators.

We own our rss feeds. Our personal daily lives. We can do the same for the semantic web. Extend owning your book reviews to travel reviews, recipes, website reviews (which is something Amazon's A9 wants to own now), sharing photos, weblog comments, product reviews, etc etc etc.

We contribute our thoughts and work to the web now. We all write these incredibly useful pieces of information now, just not for ourselves.

Own your data. This future is here and is evenly distributed.

Blogware producers, bloggers, aggregators, information users, join the revolution to own your data by participating in the discussion to make it possible at


2004-09-17 14:37:01
More to data libre than the semantic web
For example, things like mapping data (especially taxpayer-funded data!) should be free, zip code data, etc. Collecting that sort of stuff and coming up with mechanisms to share it, enhance it, use it, etc. is important.
2004-09-17 18:37:30
More to data libre than the semantic web
Couldn't agree more.

What started me off on this was that I was doing some geocaching. I went to & realized that if I gave them my geocache data, they wanted me to pay $3/month to be able to get it back in xml form.

Sure, I could get all the caches in gpx, but WTF? These people built the site!

2004-09-20 09:08:53
More to data libre than the semantic web
I know what you mean about - not a team building experience. :) I didn't get any response to my request for the entire database, even though I would be willing to pay for it.
Your statement "Own your data" is what really caught my attention. On the geodata front this is something I have been mulling over for a while now. Most of our regional data (British Columbia) is locked up behind government doors. There are some good initiatives that are helping open it up, but for the private citizen, there isn't much hope of getting good data for free.
I propose a grassroots data collection effort. It could, oddly enough, take the form of a style site. Users worldwide could upload GIS data files or enter coordinates to store information and, ideally, digitizing their own info into online base maps. I've got a global base map started at but haven't got to doing any upload/entry interface yet (yes, the interface is spartan :). It would start with some simple point data, then moving toward other types of features over time. Individual efforts on the street of your hometown with a GPS can garner some awesome info. i.e. is the results of GPS'ing more than 900 local (to him) restaurants.

I can use open GIS standards to make it available to everybody else. Anyway, that's my dream, probably worth it for my next weblog.


2004-09-20 13:56:34
More on
Check out this forum msg at the site, I've been discussing the whole "giving away your data" thing with people there:

2007-01-19 23:39:18
So interesting site, thanks!