Originally appeared on the Nodalities blog – which has since been consigned to the wayback machine.
The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing on kind of thing in terms of another. –Lakoff and Johnson (1980)
Would you join me for a party?
It’s a black-tie, invite-only affair at the family estate. If you can make it, I’ll send you some directions and an invitation and a photo name-badge. Please don’t forget to bring it with you; there was an unfortunate incident last summer with a guest and the guards at the gate. Don’t worry, we don’t have those dogs any more: poor things had to be put down.
I’d like to explore the idea of Semantic Web metaphors. For a bit of background, I’m coming at this from the perspective that metaphor plays a key role in the way we think as well as the way we communicate. The idea of a ‘conceptual metaphor’ comes from Lakoff and Johnson and their collaborative Metaphors we Live By. The idea is that, because we’re all people, and all people are similar in many ways (we all have bodies, our bodies face in one direction, we perceive a huge amount of information by site) that we actually share common metaphorical constructions which allow our minds to deal with abstract concepts like time and numbers. Given the importance of these frameworks, it might be an idea to look at some common or easily-accessed technological metaphors and see how the Semantic Web fits in with these. This could help to explore the way we think and access the concepts behind the Semantic Web, and could inform the way we communicate about it.
The Semantic Web is not a Walled Garden.
The first metaphor I’d like to look at is actually a contrasting system: understanding the Semantic Web in terms of something it’s not: a walled garden.
In information technology, a ‘Walled Garden’ is a system which doesn’t link or accept links from an outside network. All the information inside is only available to members of that system and the content found within the system has to be admitted or imported. If we play around this walled garden metaphor, we can imagine seeing nice specimen plants with well-spaced labels and possibly some glass in between us and the more expensive displays. There might even be a gazebo with some exceedingly rare plants on display. To get in, you need to buy a ticket, and pay an extra fiver for a guide book. A lot of work went into the building of the garden and the arrangement and upkeep of the displays, so they’re charging for entry and keeping the best stuff for premium ticket holders.
This is exactly what happened at the beginning of the internet. Various internet service providers provided access to selected content, and graded it so they could charge for premium stuff. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this scenario, it’s a very standard arrangement and works well with people’s perceptions of how to access a service (like buying a ticket, or ordering a service like digital TV). The web, however, changed this perception as more and more people began to experience the freedom of accessing any information at any time. The WWW experienced a huge network effect as the walled-garden business model faded from the game-board.
The Walled Garden metaphor, however, could also be extended to include data systems, silos, basically anywhere data is kept in proprietary systems. The Web 2.0 ecosystem is filled with various walled gardens. Think of your favorite web app, and consider its characteristics. Which features only work within that system? What data can you access through the service?
Social networking sites and applications are particularly easy to categorize this way. How many networks are you registered with? LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace… Did any of these networks know who you were before you signed up? Did they know your friends until you told them? Can you point to a profile of a friend who’s not part of the system?
The basic business model of these walled gardens is to get as many people inside the walls as possible. So, if you’re friends with someone in one network, say Facebook, you can’t link your Facebook profile to a mate’s on Bebo or MySpace. These are separate gardens, each holding their own parties… and the owners can only cater for the invited guests. They’re happy for you to invite others (provided you give them their information); but they’re not out to through an open buffet to anyone who hasn’t signed the guest list!
“Wait!” I can hear you say: “What about when an application asks for my email address so it can find my friends?” Well, that’s exactly what it’s asking: for you to invite your friends to their party. There are even applications which have been built to link the walled gardens: but you have to be on their platform. Plaxo is an example of this. The idea is that you sign up to Plaxo (you join their garden party) and you tell them all the networks you’ve already joined (you give them your invitations to all the other parties). In a sense, you’re joining another party, which is essentially tracking all your invitations for you—they map the parties for you. The catch is that you have to join Plaxo for it to work, essentially seeing all the other gardens from the vantage of a slightly higher garden. The effect is that you get a map of all the other parties, but you still don’t get lunch!
The Semantic Web works from a different perspective. By being an open-world system, the Semantic Web works across the entire network (which, in this case, is the internet) using the entire web (the links created among content on the network: in this case: the WorldWideWeb!) The idea is that all the information you make available, and all that you have a link to is open to the entire network. The result is a removal of the ‘walls’ around content.
I would be very interested to hear what you think about how the Semantic Web relates to Walled Gardens, and in what ways you think it breaks down walls (or otherwise). Please feel not only free but invited to leave comments to join the discussion.