January 31, 2004

Retrospective: the semantics of harpers.org

Last November, I wrote a piece called Ontologies and Arguments, discussing the prospects for digital text to be "given well-defined meaning" via the Semantic Web and similar ideas. I cited an anti-semantic web piece by Clay Shirky and a reasoned response by Paul Ford.

Ford promised that "on December 1, on this site, I'll describe a site I've built for a major national magazine of literature, politics, and culture. The site is built entirely on a primitive, but useful, Semantic Web framework, and I'll explain why using this framework was in the best interests of both the magazine and the readers, and how its code base allows it to re-use content in hundreds of interesting ways."

At the time, I expressed a sincere interest in seeing that site in action, but what with one thing and another, I never checked back to Ford's site until now, though it's well worth reading for other reasons.

On 12/1/2003, Ford did exactly as he promised. The site that he built on "a primitive, but useful, Semantic Web framework" turns out to be harpers.org, the online presence of Harper's Magazine. His discussion of the role of the Semantic Web on the Harper's site is interesting.

The funny thing is, I've read (things on) the Harper's site several times in the past month, without noticing the Semantic Web bits, which are mainly visible in the Connections area. I'd never clicked there before. If I'd seen the top-level menu (Human Beings, Human Endeavor, Human Attributes, Human Needs, Ideas, Supernatural Beings, Nature,, Geopolitical Regions, Organizations & Bureaucracies), I might have suspected something.

I like the overall layout of harpers.org -- it's graphically and navigationally crisp. But in a few minutes of poking around in the connections hierarchy, I didn't have a conversion experience. I'm referring to the sort of quasi-religious sense of awe at the possibilities of a newly-experienced technology that I felt the first time I used a computer, or the first time I created an html page and viewed it with a browser, or the first time I searched with Altavista. Maybe I'm just too dense to get it. But so far, I don't see any reason to update Borges on metadata.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 31, 2004 08:38 AM