Where Social Networking Meets the Semantic Web

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2007-11-26 Print this article Print


Almost 10 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee began describing the Semantic Web as a Web that can describe things in a way that computers can understand, enabling the machines to make stronger connections, and ultimately letting people share documents and other types of information in different ways.

What he described then was not much different from the way a social networking site works today.

Berners-Lee in a blog post last week lined up his Semantic Web theory against the social graphs established by Facebook, Google's OpenSocial and a list of other social networks. 

As part of what he calls the Giant Global Graph, he proposes using Semantic Web technologies to provide a way for social networks to open up and share information about their users and their users' relationships.

What he is talking about goes beyond OpenSocial, which lets programmers use common APIs to develop applications that will work across many sites in the OpenSocial network to make everyone in a social network accessible (not unlike a document) to everyone else in every other network.

Ideally, this would burn down the walled gardens that exist in today's social network climate, where users can speak to only those registered on the same networks. Instead of having to sign up individually for MySpace and Facebook, you'd sign up on one and be able to reach and be reached by the millions of users of both networks.

"So, if only we could express these relationships, such as my social graph, in a way that is above the level of documents, then we would get re-use," Berners-Lee wrote. "That's just what the graph does for us. We have the technology -- it is Semantic Web technology, starting with RDF, OWL and SPARQL. Not magic bullets, but the tools which allow us to break free of the document layer."

Extend that to mobile devices and let the complete freedom (or insanity) wash over you.

Berners-Lee's notion is equal parts a Web application developer's utopia, a privacy expert's nightmare and a massive coronary inducer for the social network that doesn't want its precious advertisers to leave its garden for anyone else's.

The Web developer could have boundless access to users. The privacy experts would lament the breaking down of boundaries and the potential for massive identity theft fraud schemes. The social networking companies would be thrown into a panic over how they might make money in an online ad world that will essentially become the new Wild West. 

So, who might be best served to blaze this trail? Love it or hate it, it's Google. As the leading online advertiser, Google could profitably embrace Berners-Lee's philosophy of a Giant Global Graph, because it absolutely makes a killing in online advertising; think what it will do once it gets its mitts on DoubleClick.

On the flip side of the coin, Google is already being vilified over privacy issues, largely because of its aggressive approach to online advertising.

While people may have gotten used to the contextually sensitive ads on Gmail, they are now banging the same drum over the DoubleClick deal, fearing users' privacy will be threatened at an unprecedented level.

Berners-Lee acknowledges the mass ceding of control involved in the concept, but also said people will warm to it as they did before, allowing their machines to share data and applications.   

"It is about letting it be connected to data from peer sites," he wrote. "It is about letting it be joined to data from other applications. It is about getting excited about connections, rather than nervous."

Simple, really, in theory. Give up some control to get more value. Google, with its plans to extend its tendrils in the mobile Web, should embrace this line of thought and make some Semantic Web moves.

Google has gotten this far with innovating software. I would like to see the company forge some Semantic Web APIs, and see how they work on OpenSocial.

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