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Saturday, February 21, 2009 

The 'Semantic Web' vs 'Emergent Semantics' on the web

…or syllogisms vs neologisms

Tim Berners-Lee - “The Semantic Web is an extension of the current web in which information is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and people to work in cooperation.”

This statement projects the typical view of the ‘semantic web’ that somehow the chaotic and loosely defined nature of the web can be tamed by applying syllogistic deductive logic. However, syllogisms often lead to the inadvertent application of generalizations that, while seeking to prove truth, end up only proving that there are always exceptions to any rule. As a pertinent example, (and to maintain a theme):

All people, are unique individual humans
All Facebook users are people
Therefore, all Facebook users are unique individual humans

So, one could obviously factor in the undeterminable probability of 'Facebook-Trolls', but to put in place a system that corrects the contextual mistakes of syllogisms would be a gargantuan task. As Clay Shirky stated back in November 2003, (discussing the semantic web) - “Any requirement that a given statement be cross-checked against a library of context-giving statements, which would have still further context, would doom the system to death by scale.” (http://tinyurl.com/uakb)

In the end, it could be said that it’s the ‘top-down’ nature of the push for the ‘semantic web’ that makes it so obviously not a ‘bottom-up’ phenomenon.

The new breed of P2P search projects that are contending for the ‘next big thing in search’ holy-grail, like Faroo (www.faroo.com) and Minerva (www.minerva-project.org) have taken the semantic overlay networks (SON) approach to organize peer-nodes and data objects into clusters in accordance with the inherent semantics of the content in these networks.

These projects look at the semantics of an existing resource and attempt to use semantic rules and processes to facilitate the search and retrieval of data or files from that resource. The trouble is that this is a little like the semantic web approach, where semantic rules are formulated to attempt to make some order with regard to an open-ended amount of heterogeneous web data.

This application of ‘semantics’ is in contrast to the way the term ‘semantics’ is being used in the fields of ‘Emergent-Semantics’ and ‘Semiotic-Dynamics’ which are more concerned with neologisms (newly coined words or expressions) and evolving language systems, and specifically, ‘tagging’ and ‘folksonomies’ as evidence of these phenomena. (see the work of Ciro Cattuto http://tinyurl.com/b5z3g7 and ref: www.tagora-project.eu )

‘Emergent-Semantics’ and ‘Semiotic-Dynamics’ are relatively new fields of study that have gained some interest due in part to the general interest in ‘Semantic-Web’ research but specifically the recognized properties of folksonomies that display power-law and small-world characteristics. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_Law)

These fields, “study how semiotic relations can originate, spread, and evolve over time in populations, by combining recent advances in linguistics and cognitive science with methodological and theoretical tools from complex systems and computer science.” [quote from: www.tagora-project.eu]

The stated aims of the ‘Sematic Web’: “a universal medium for data, information, and knowledge exchange making it possible for the web to understand and satisfy the requests of people and machines to use the web content.” [Berners-Lee 2001] seem somewhat quixotic by comparison to the immediacy and relevance of the study of the ‘emergent semantics’ of the web and the plainly obvious evolving language systems characterised by the tagging phenomenon, which are unmistakably ‘bottom-up’ in nature.

So, what are the practical applications of ‘bottom-up’ emergent-semantic systems? I’ll have to leave that for another post.

When I met TB-L back in 2006, when he was in the process of incorporating the semantic web into a larger view of 'web science', he was pleading for was the adoption of the various standards (RDFs, OWL, etc) that would enable the semantic web.

Is this top-down? Well, perhaps it is, and perhaps then it won't work. However, let's not forget that the success of the web is due to standards compliance (anyone remember Microsoft's own network, tied to Windows, mid 1990s??).

So perhaps its inevitable that he see this as a top-down, standards-driven challenge, which means cracking a very tough chicken-and-egg problem.

The reality is therefore likely to be messier, with an array of approaches, but - hopefully - in the long-term these standards, or something like them, will be adopted, once a reasonable percentage of services are ready for them.

Public institutions should adopt them now to accelerate this process - the role of public sector information in cracking the egg could be significant.

As for applications - I look forward to the next post!

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