In our post-game analysis, Tantek and I felt that the Developers Day track on microformats went incredibly well. Not only did we get a lot of good feedback, I think we turned a lot of heads. The ideas we presented stood up to initial scrutiny by a pretty tough crowd, and our demonstrations of the already-deployed uses of formats like XFN, like XHTMLfriends.net and an automated way to subscribe to hCalendars and hCards, drew favorable response.
Even better, our joint panel with the Semantic Web folks had a far greater tone of agreement than of acrimony, the latter of which I feared would dominate. I learned some things there, in fact. For example, the idea that the Semantic Web efforts are inherently top-down turns out to be false. It may be that many of the efforts have been top-down, but that doesn’t mean that they have to be. We also saw examples where Semantic Web technologies are far more appropriate than a microformat would be. The example Jim Hendler brought up was an oncology database that defines and uses some 600,000 terms. I would not want to try to capture that in a microformat—although it could be done, I suspect.
Here’s one thing I think is key about microformats: they cause the semantics people already use to be impressed onto the web. They capture, or at least make it very easy to capture, the current zeitgeist. This makes them almost automatically human-friendly, which is always a big plus in my book.
The other side of that key is this: it may be that by allowing authors to quickly annotate their information, microformats will be the gateway through which the masses’ data is brought to the more formal systems the Semantic Web allows. It very well may be that, in the future, we’ll look back and realize that microformats were the bootstrap needed to haul the web into semanticity.
Tantek and I have had some spirited debates around that last point, and are actually in the middle of one right now. After all, maybe things won’t go that way; maybe microformats will lead to something else, some other way of spreading machine-recognizable semantic information. It’s fun to debate where things might go, and why, but I think in the end we’re both willing to keep pushing the concept and use of microformats forward, and see how things turn out down the road.
What’s fascinating is how fired up people get about microformats. After SXSW05, there was an explosion of interest and experimentation. Several microformats got created or proposed, covering all kinds of topics—from folksonomy formalization to political categorization. A similar effect seemed to be occurring at WWW2005. One person who’s been around long enough to know said that the enthusiasm and excitement surrounding microformats reminded him of the early days of the web itself.
As someone who’s at the center of the work on microformats, it’s hard for me to judge that sort of thing. But I was there for some of the early WWW conferences, and I remember the energy there. As I rode home from WWW2 in Chicago, I was convinced that the world was in the process of changing, and I wanted more than anything to be a part of that change. To hear that there’s a similar energy swirling around something I’m helping to create and define is profoundly humbling.
That all sounds great, of course, but if it remains theoretical it’s not much good, right? Fortunately, it isn’t staying theoretical at all, and I’m not just talking about XFN. Want an example of how you could make use of microformatted information right now, as in today? That’s coming up in the next post, where I’ll show how to make use of a resource I mentioned earlier in this post.