What’s up with the Pragmatic Web?

On September 1, I was a member of the Pragmatic Web track panel of the I-SEMANTICS 2010 conference in Graz, Austria, after having given the keynote earlier that day. The Pragmatic Web is a newly emerging field,  still in the process of being defined. Its main focus is not Web technology per se, but the contexts and communities in which these resources are developed and used to accomplish goals, develop mutual understanding, and create and realize commitments. For background see the Pragmatic Web community site, and my blog posts Patterns for the Pragmatic Web and The Growth of the Pragmatic Web.

The Pragmatic Web should not be seen as separate from, but instead as building on and feeding into the Semantic Web, which concentrates on knowledge representation and reasoning approaches. One can try to formally represent “everything necessary” in a context but (1) this overformalization often kills the necessary human interpretation of any situated context and (2) still does not answer what relevant context factors are. Mainstream Semantic Web research does not deal with the subtleties of communities, goal setting and negotiation, human interaction, and myriad other context factors. For this, you need research perspectives different from those provided by the Semantic Web field itself.  Of course, there is no precise dichotomy between the Semantic and the Pragmatic Web, instead there is a grey zone between the two fields, like the “Social Semantic Web”.

In the panel, we discussed the status and future of the Pragmatic Web. Other panel members included Alexandre Passant (DERI),  Hans Weigand (Tilburg University), and Adrian Paschke (Freie Universität Berlin).

Alexandre covered the budding field of the Social Semantic Web, which examines how social interactions on the Web lead to the creation of explicit and semantically rich knowledge representations. Hans discussed another  research area that is a major contributor to the Pragmatic Web, the Language/Action Perspective, as is its sibling Organisational Semiotics. Adrian focused on the Corporate Semantic Web, and the Pragmatic Agent Web, which represent some of the more applied research areas.

My own presentation was about what’s up with the Pragmatic Web as an area of research. I placed it in the Web 3.0 era we are entering, covered some of its fundamental questions and theories, and presented a socio-technical conversation context perspective that can be used to organize and position Pragmatic Web research (the framework is further explained in the paper and presentation of my invited talk.) I showed how the number of research publications addressing or referring to the Pragmatic Web is growing rapidly (with a small dip in last year’s number of publications). The high turnout at the panel discussion, especially given the competition of many high-quality parallel tracks, should also be a sign of the growing interest in the field. Finally, I positioned some contributing and related research fields shaping and being influenced by the Pragmatic Web. Core contributing fields in my view are Community Informatics, the Language/Action Perspective, Organisational Semiotics, Web 2.0/social media and the Semantic Web. See slide 7 of:

The discussion following the presentation, as well as many personal responses later, indicate that the Pragmatic Web as an area of research seems to be viable. One criticism is that much of the research is still very conceptual and needs to materialize much more into concrete applications and projects. This criticism is justified, but can be partially explained by the early stage the field is in and the still small number of researchers and organizations involved. However, there is also a more fundamental reason for this lack of applications: the Pragmatic Web studies context, and context by its very nature is extremely wide in scope and is always context of something else. Still, by fruitfully cooperating with more technology-driven and application-oriented R&D areas like the Social Semantic Web and Web 2.0, fundamental research insights about relevant contexts generated by the Pragmatic Web community should descend into the real world and become much more visible  in the years to come.

ALOIS 2008 conference

On May 5-6, I will be attending, as an invited speaker, the ALOIS (Action in Language, Organisations, and Information Systems) conference in Venice. Apart from the wonderful venue, it is going be a very interesting conference, in the best tradition of the Language/Action Perspective and Pragmatic Web conferences.

Here is the abstract of my talk and paper:

Activating Online Collaborative Communities

Collaborative communities often make use of complex tool systems. In these systems, work gets fragmented over many tools, often halting communication. We discuss online community activation in terms of the Language/Action Perspective, and its more recent offshoot, the Pragmatic Web. We propose collaboration patterns for defining high-level socio-technical design solutions for activation problems. We illustrate the approach using examples from a digital tutorial case.

What is the Pragmatic Web?

The Pragmatic Web is still in its infancy, as are the explanations about what it is or could become. Here is one of my recent takes on the matter trying to answer some questions by Paola di Maio on the Pragmatic Web mailing list.

——– Original Message ——–
Subject: Re: [PragmaticWeb] following on
Date: Thu, 14 Feb 2008 10:31:54 +0100
From: Aldo de Moor <ademoor@communitysense.nl>
To: pragmaticweb@listserv.uni-hohenheim.de

Hi Paola,

paola.dimaio@gmail.com wrote, on 14-2-2008 9:33:

> – to fill such a gap, a new paradigm shift is now emerging called
> ‘pragmatic web’ designed primarily to support and automate the
> human-human web based knowlege exchange, particular emphasis is being
> place on – rule based reasoning and intelligent applications based on
> NL

To me, the PW is basically about context and purpose: making web applications more context-aware and serving purposes of (their communities of) use. In a nutshell, one could say the PW is about how to make (semantic) web technologies serve collaborating people in their messy, real-world, evolving domains of interaction. Rule-based reasoning and intelligent applications are but one of several possible “enlightened web technology” applications. Another stream that I and
several other current members of the budding PW community are particularly interested in is the marriage of web technologies and large scale, distributed argumentation support systems.

> – pragmatic web technologies are designed to function on http/ip
> protocol, and are likely to adopt owl/rdf representation if thats the
> way knowledge is going to be represented on the web, therefore cannot
> be distinguished from SW on this account.

Owl/RDF etc are the main focus of SW R&D. PW can use these representations, but is definitely not limited to them. In fact, PW research may lead to completely new forms of representation and
reasoning, much better suited to deal with the context and purpose issues mentioned above.

> – However PW research and possibly future technologies is aimed to
> study and capture the human interaction with web based technologies

Yes, it’s about putting people first. Whereas current systems development often just distinguishes “The User”, PW tries to open this box, and discover innovative ways to model human goals, communication and collaboration patterns, norms, preferences, etc. These much better understood characteristics then could and should inform the design of much more useful knowledge bases and web systems. “Intelligence” is thus not something to be captured, but an intricate interplay between human interpretation and context-aware, _augmenting_ formal knowledge systems.