Lou on Shirky

Not an exotic sandwich, but tasty guru-on-guru commentary about the Smenatic Web [sic] and metadata:

“I find myself recommending that extensive investments in metadata be postponed, at least in the enterprise environment, in favor of less expensive and more feasible architectural approaches that won’t go down in flames and force my clients into bankruptcy.

Why am I so uneasy with large metadata-driven approaches? One problem: in many environments, those espousing metadata as “the answer” don’t recognize that there are really two types of metadata to wrangle with: structural (think attributes or fields) and semantic (descriptive values or controlled vocabularies that populate those attributes). Each of these can require an extensive investment to think through, develop, implement, and, perhaps most importantly, maintain. People’s information needs are moving targets, as is an organization’s content; the metadata that connect them naturally need to evolve as well.”

I’m thinking that while, like Lou, I’ve heard a lot of the same evangelising of metadata, (leading, almost inevitably to ‘boil the oceans’ type-projects); there is a lot of R.S.M.M. going on in the background of the current crop of personal and group web tools which means that for a set of problems and markets, that exciting ‘sematic-web’ like stuff will get built, and will prove useful to end-users and affordable to achieve for clients/companies.

Wow it’s comfortable on this fence.

» bLoug: Dec 02, 2003: Skip This Rant and Read Shirky

0 thoughts on “Lou on Shirky”

  1. True that boil-the-ocean projects are bad, but semantic web projects don’t have to be. Enter Paul Ford, who – besides countering Shirky’s misguided arguments[1] – recently released Harpers.org, a semantic web project that cost under US $100K[2].

    It’s like Flash: the technology isn’t the problem, bad design is the problem.


  2. Since victor posted his comment in re Paul Ford’s Harper’s both there and here, I’ll follow suit:

    Paul’s project uses Semantic Web technologies, and is a very good site, _except for the semantics_. Take a look at its classification of e.g. the Democratic Party:

    “This [category] is The Democratic Party, a political party and a United States bureaucracy. It is part of United States Government Bureaucracies, which is part of Government Bureaucracies, which is part of Organizations & Bureaucracies, which is part of Connections, which is part of Harpers.org.”

    Aren’t you glad we got that all worked out?

    The Democratic party is not in fact a Government bureacracy, much less part of the Government, and the ways in which the Democratic Party relates to the Government is totally different than the way it relates to Connections, a sub-section of Harpers, or to Harpers as a whole. It’s just this sort of difficult in defining “facts”, as Paul suggests Harper’s is doing, and then automating their handling, that undermines the success of Harpers as an avatar of the Semantic Web.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think Paul has built a terrific site for Harper’s, but the terrificness has everything to do with the flexible linking structure, and nothing to do with the semantics of the links themselves, which produce results like the one quoted above.

  3. I disagree with Clay (of course, of course). I think there’s all sorts of fun to be had, and he’s picked out a boring example. This is more interesting.


    “This is Jesus Christ, a supervisor, a human being, a prophet, a god, and a political leader.”

    All sorts of connections and crosslinks. And when Clay writes:

    “Don’t get me wrong, I think Paul has built a terrific site for Harper’s, but the terrificness has everything to do with the flexible linking structure, and nothing to do with the semantics of the links themselves, which produce results like the one quoted above.”

    First, that was gracious, and thanks, Clay. Second: well, not really. The semantically typed links are responsible for EVERYTHING–the timelines, the facts, the nav at the left, the nav at the bottom, the ads. And so forth. What you call “flexible linking structure,” I call semantically typed links. I mean, they are, the content exports to RDF and everything.

    So? So now I’ll be able to do things like draw a map of the world, highlighting the countries covered by the web site in red–and shading that red according to the depth of coverage. Without the SemWeb framework, this would be really hard. With the SemWeb framework, a day of coding to get it working. Just say:

    1) For each node type=”#Country” in the ontology;

    2) Get the # of facts and events that link to that country;

    3) Make a shade of red for each number returned by (2);

    4) Color in the SVG map (which also has country IDs associated with polygons) accordingly

    And then some USEMAP tomfoolery that no one wants to know about. Really, I’d HATE to do it some other way. This is, I guess, my argument: the Semantic Web framework may be 99% hoo-ha, but the remaining 1% is so very useful, and has been a fine step from me to take, both personally and professionally.

    Another take on the Harper’s site (not by or associated with me):


  4. By the way, the statement: “The Democratic party is not in fact a Government bureacracy, much less part of the Government” is open to debate, I think. Yes, in a strict, factual sense, the Dems are not of the Government. But our ontology has plenty of irony, and while they may not be enfranchised in the constitution, we might as well admit that the 2-party system is now an essential part of government in the United States.

    And as for the muddy-ness of putting it right in the middle of Harper’s — that’s a good criticism of me, but not of the Semantic Web folks, who are probably much disgusted by the mix of content and metadata I’ve perpetrated. And the kinds of connections between nodes are actually in there, just not explicit (no way to know this, of course, as Harper’s doesn’t make it clear). I.e. there’s a lot under the hood that is still 1) being worked out, and 2) hidden from the user. Miles to go, etc, etc. But did want to clear that up. And come on, the automatic timelines are cool, and they are totally about arbitrary, RDF-style semantically typed metadata. Even if you hate the Semantic Web and my design skills and everything, how can you hate a lowly timeline?

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