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The World’s First Mainstream Semantic Web

The vast majority of semantic technologists are directing their efforts to search. It’s an important use of their talents; search is a hard problem worth solving. But it seems to me that we need to take a broader view.

Semantics is the stuff of thought, of meaning, of our most personal and deeply held beliefs. A fully realized semantic web will be much more than “better search”. But the future is hard to imagine. We need concrete examples of semantic applications to demonstrate the potential and fuel our imaginations.

So as a glimpse into this future, consider the world’s first mainstream semantic web: Wikipedia. Wikipedia is most often celebrated as the poster child of Web 2.0. As a social application, this is most certainly true. But its output, its content, may be more illustrative of Web 3.0 semantics. Its articles are abstractions: they summarize a huge body of content down to only the essential aspects of each subject. By maintaining organizational standards and templates, it has become machine-readable (derivatives such as DBpedia and many other research projects make it explicitly so). And the subject matter of Wikipedia is clearly the stuff of thought. Semantic representation and encyclopaedic content have a deep and obvious kinship.

These technical attributes put Wikipedia in the semantics camp. Web 2.0 principles may be driving Wikipedia’s prodigious output, but Web 3.0 semantic qualities are driving the phenomenal mainstream consumption of the information. If Wikipedia is truly illustrative of semantic data, then insights into Wikipedia’s consumption may point to killer applications of semantics.

Why do you use Wikipedia? Are you looking for an authoritative viewpoint on a subject or merely trying to clarify your own worldview? Are you feeding your thoughts or trying to digest the thoughts of others? Are you creating your next great idea or investigating whether someone already owns it? These are less problems of search as much of opportunities for personal and collective thinking.

Wikipedia is one of the top 10 websites in the world. Underneath its veil of neutrality is a seething mass of ideas, discussion, debate, personal and collective thinking. With its millions of articles, it is a giant in the world of content. But as a semantic web, Wikipedia represents merely the tip of the iceberg, a sliver of our personal and collective thoughts. Wikipedia may be the first mainstream semantic web, but it’s also a very small semantic web!

As more of our thoughts and thinking migrate online, the world of semantics will dwarf the world of content. Wikipedia provides a glimpse into a bright future that isn’t about a “better search”, just semantics on its own terms.