A journalist asked me this question for an end-of-year piece. I thought about it, and suggested discussing it with all my most educated mature friends. Fortunately for me, only my young friends had time for the discussion, so I got a fresh viewpoint. Here are some of the things that we came up with.
First, let's look at some trends in how young people use the web. Previously esoteric features like RSS feeds are becoming understood by mainstream users. Microformats for structuring information are starting to spread. We are seeing mashups of data from one web site appearing in another. All in all, there is an expectation that the web is no longer a set of individual places where you go to get things (pictures on Flickr, journal on Livejournal, friends on Myspace), but that all of these things are just aspects of a single integrated experience that is "the web".
In social networking, we are seeing pressure to move to more and more open envioronments. Just about any Livejournal page today is abuzz with two topics: 1) Does the recent Livejournal 'adult tagging' policy constitute patrolling Livejournal as a Nannystate? and 2) Will the recent purchase of Livejournal by a foreign company compromise the privacy of information that has been confided to our journals? Both of these topics result in a single technology interest - is there a way to extract my Livejournal into a neutral form, that I can archive, and if necessary, migrate to some other system?
What do these trends mean for the semantic web? It means that the time is right for a mass end-user application like Twine which will allow a user to create and manage their own information from hundreds of sites, in a customizable and personal repository of information. It means that a generation of users will expect that information can move smoothly from one site to the next.
Does this mean that 2008 will be the Year of the Semantic Web? After all, Twine itself is based on the W3C Semantic Web standards - if Twine takes off, applications all over the web will scramble to be Twine-compliant (that is, RDF-compliant), and this will be a boon to Semantic Web applications everywhere.
But as we all know, the best technology doesn't always win the day, so the future of the Web 3.0 might not include Twine and the Semantic Web standards - it might be built out of a hodge-podge of technologies for mashups, RSS integration, social network exchange, tagging, etc., and leave the elegant idea of RDF triples behind. Or maybe the technological difficulties with RDF (e.g., its problematic XML syntax) will make it qualify as an inferior technology standard that can win the day.
Let's turn our attention for a moment to the enterprise - Things like Twine and social networking are usually thought of as being the domain of the web at large, not of the workplace. But the workplace has its own integration challenges, based on issues around data federation, M&A, heterogeneous data streams and the like. What will 2008 mean for the Semantic Web in the enterprise?
My young friend pointed something important out to me. In another entry, I have pointed out the relevance the amazing phenomenon of Wikipedia to the enterprise. There is a whole cadre of people out there who understand and appreciate the value of a shared information set, and the value to themselves of contributing to it. Today, when I suggest to an enterprise that it might be possible to motivate knowledge workers to do some work themselves to organize their corpus of unstructured information, I am told with a sad shake of the head that "... you just don't understand. Our engineers/researchers/analysts will never do that. It just won't happen!"
My young friend suggested otherwise. Sure, the generation of over-40 engineers might never do that (after all, 40 is the new 30, so by virtue of being over 40, none of us can be trusted!), that there is a new generation of people entering the workforce who have a different relationship with Wikipedia than their elders. These are the people who used Wikipedia to cheat on their homework in high school.
Yes, the first wikipedia high school generation is graduating from college and entering the workforce, and they will expect their information infrastructure to have the same interactive power that they have used in school. That the notes they take can be posted to the ether, and that someone will correct and enhance them. You can bet that this generation of engineers/researchers/analysts will appreciate the value of marking up their information. Will this happen in 2008? Probably not - but 2008 will be the year when it starts, when new expectations start pushing at the enterprise.
Of course, the most important thing that 2008 will bring to the Semantic Web will be the publication of Semantic Web for the Working Ontologist - the book that I have been working on with Jim Hendler for the past two years, is finally in copy editing, and will appear in 2008 (hopefully by May). With this book, we can begin to train a whole new generation of information managers and data modelers in how the W3C standards can be used to model integrated information.