“Whatever Happened to the Semantic Web?”

I’ve been enjoying some of the computing history articles, and especially internet history articles, on twobithistory.org. But this one hits especially close to home I think, “Whatever Happened to the Semantic Web?”

The problem, in Swartz’ view, was the “formalizing mindset of mathematics and the institutional structure of academics” that the “semantic Webheads” brought to bear on the challenge. In forums like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a huge amount of effort and discussion went into creating standards before there were any applications out there to standardize. And the standards that emerged from these “Talmudic debates” were so abstract that few of them ever saw widespread adoption. The few that did, like XML, were “uniformly scourges on the planet, offenses against hardworking programmers that have pushed out sensible formats (like JSON) in favor of overly-complicated hairballs with no basis in reality.” The Semantic Web might have thrived if, like the original web, its standards were eagerly adopted by everyone. But that never happened because—as has been discussedon this blog before—the putative benefits of something like XML are not easy to sell to a programmer when the alternatives are both entirely sufficient and much easier to understand…


The long effort to build the Semantic Web has been said to consist of four phases.7 The first phase, which lasted from 2001 to 2005, was the golden age of Semantic Web activity. Between 2001 and 2005, the W3C issued a slew of new standards laying out the foundational technologies of the Semantic future.

The most important of these was the Resource Description Framework (RDF). …

In 2006, Tim Berners-Lee posted a short article in which he argued that the existing work on Semantic Web standards needed to be supplemented by a concerted effort to make semantic data available on the web…  Berners-Lee’s article launched the second phase of the Semantic Web’s development, where the focus shifted from setting standards and building toy examples to creating and popularizing large RDF datasets. Perhaps the most successful of these datasets was DBpedia, a giant repository of RDF triplets extracted from Wikipedia articles….

…The third phase of the Semantic Web’s development involved adapting the W3C’s standards to fit the actual practices and preferences of web developers. By 2008, JSON had begun its meteoric rise to popularity…. issued a draft specification of JSON-LD in 2010. For the next few years, JSON-LD and an updated RDF specification would be the primary focus of Semantic Web work at the W3C….

….Today, work on the Semantic Web seems to have petered out. The W3C still does some work on the Semantic Web under the heading of “Data Activity,” which might charitably be called the fourth phase of the Semantic Web project. But it’s telling that the most recent “Data Activity” project is a study of what the W3C must do to improve its standardization process.13 Even the W3C now appears to recognize that few of its Semantic Web standards have been widely adopted and that simpler standards would have been more successful. The attitude at the W3C seems to be one of retrenchment and introspection, perhaps in the hope of being better prepared when the Semantic Web looks promising again….


And so the Semantic Web, as colorfully described by one blogger, is “as dead as last year’s roadkill.”14 At least, the version of the Semantic Web originally proposed by Tim Berners-Lee, which once seemed to be the imminent future of the web, is unlikely to emerge soon. That said, many of the technologies and ideas that were developed amid the push to create the Semantic Web have been repurposed and live on in various applications….

…So the problems that confronted the Semantic Web were more numerous and profound than just “XML sucks.” All the same, it’s hard to believe that the Semantic Web is truly dead and gone. Some of the particular technologies that the W3C dreamed up in the early 2000s may not have a future, but the decentralized vision of the web that Tim Berners-Lee and his follow researchers described in Scientific American is too compelling to simply disappear. Imagine a web where, rather than filling out the same tedious form every time you register for a service, you were somehow able to authorize services to get that information from your own website. Imagine a Facebook that keeps your list of friends, hosted on your own website, up-to-date, rather than vice-versa. Basically, the Semantic Web was going to be a web where everyone gets to have their own personal REST API, whether they know the first thing about computers or not. Conceived of that way, it’s easy to see why the Semantic Web hasn’t yet been realized. There are so many engineering and security issues to sort out between here and there. But it’s also easy to see why the dream of the Semantic Web seduced so many people.

Whatever Happened to the Semantic Web?



Oh my, I just realized he cited MY famous blog on linked data in a note. I did not realize that until I actually went and looked at all the footnotes. He cites me for the comment “as dead as last year’s road kill”, but I knew I wouldn’t say something like that! And I did not. I was citing a comment on HackerNews, which I properly quoted, cited, and linked to! It is not something I said or my opinion… exactly.  (since corrected).

The HackerNews comments on this article are… interesting.


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