Some very smart people think that the next big leap in web technology will be on the foundation of the Semantic Web. However, some other very smart people are raising concerns that this semantic utopia may be unattainable.
Matthew Thomas is an interface designer from New Zealand. Yesterday on his website, he posted a summary of a few of these smart people’s concerns about the move towards semantic markup on the web. The biggest problem is that people just don’t care about the semantic web. It takes an essay just to explain what the semantic web is – but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile idea.
I’m sympathetic to Thomas’ points here. I’ve been working to move a web-based system to the XHTML standard. On top of the usual CSS struggles (my mind still thinks in [table] tags, but I’m slowly learning to love CSS), I’m running into a difficult problem. On this particular web system (and on many, if not most, web systems), the users generate most of the content.
First of all, the web is a crappy medium for writing. It’s good for publishing what you write, but it is terrible at the actual writing stage. Spell checking, periodic backup, saving drafts, etc. – all features we’ve grown accustomed to in word processing – are sitting there, in the next window, just a few pixels away from our arcane DOS-esque text-only [textarea] form input box. Lame.
First, we need the browser makers to put better text-editing tools at our disposal. However, here’s where it gets a little complicated. You’ve probably heard hot-shot web developers scoffing at WYSIWYG web-editors before. This is mostly because they product messy and convoluted code. There is, a deeper problem though. The web is not a WYSIWYG medium. The whole idea of XHTML and CSS technologies are that you can separate design from content – style from meaning. WYSI-not-WYG.
A simple (inane) example: I recently posted a reply to a post on the Signal vs. Noise weblog. I included a quote in my reply. I used the [blockquote] tag to indicate which part of my reply was a quote. When I submitted the post, I was pleasantly surprised to see that our friends at Signal vs. Noise had included some nice formatting for the blockquote tag in their stylesheet. As a result, my quote was nicely formatted to fit in their style and layout.
There is a powerful idea behind this simple example. When I used the [blockquote] tag, I wasn’t ‘formatting’ my post. I was adding meaning to the text – I was using machine-readable language to tell web browsers that the next few words are a quote. I didn’t know exactly what it was going to look like. (Note: there are better ways to cite a quote, but this example makes the point)
I’m not sure we can expect everyone to make this distinction. I do think, however, that people can produce writing with semantic markup if the software does the hard work.
We need a semantic-friendly-WYIWYG text editor for the web. Here are some proposed features:
- Hide the code from the writer (but make it accessible to those who want it – as many current editors do).
- Provide only semantic tools: lists, blockquotes, citations, links, emphasis, strong, etc.
- Not quite WYSIWYG: show the text in real time in a typically styled format – perhaps even adopting the style of the destination website.
- Automate the creation of meaningful markup. For example, when a link is created, prompt the author for a descriptive link title.
By the way, someone has come up with an apt name for what I’m doing here. It’s called the LazyWeb – when smart-asses like me rant and rave, but don’t do anything about it. The hope is that through the LazyWeb, people willing to write code and implement can meet up with the idea (read: lazy) people.