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Microformats and Semantics in Japan

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.

Emergent Semantics

Just a quick link to my slide deck (when did that term gain currency, and why didn’t I get a memo?) for “Emergent Semantics“.  I was honestly surprised by the number of attendees, and there were some great questions and ideas from audience members.  Throughout the rest of the day, I had some great conversations with people about their own microformat ideas.  Another measure of the level of interest in microformats and the semantic web was attendance at Tantek’s “The Elements of Meaningful XHTML“, which was so heavy that after the seats and floor space in his room filled up, a knot of people stood outside the door, turning their heads slightly and standing on tiptoe in an attempt to hear what he was saying.

On a very related note, I’ve updated my blogroll with some new met values.  I’ve met a ton of people I’d never met before, and hope to meet still more—so if I do assemble a metroll, it’ll have to wait until I get home.

Social Protocols

Seems like half the Web is already at SXSW, and I’ll be there myself soon.  For those of you who love to build networks out of your social contacts at such events, Tantek’s recently shared the secret of metrolling, which is a great way to get into XFN if you haven’t already.  I’m already planning to add metrolling to my presentation on Sunday as an example of ground-up semantics.  (And I really wish I could be at the Semantic Web panel on Monday, but it’s at the same time as “Women of Web Design”… oh well.)

It’s interesting to see how interest in evolutionary semantics is itself evolving.  A recent example of this is David Berlind‘s ZDNet article “Will social networks give way to social protocols?“.  I firmly believe the answer to be “yes”, even though there are a lot of skeptics (some of them on conference review committees, as it turns out).  Berlind clearly understands the advantage of social protocols.

You might then wonder, “Then what’s up with you writing a whole document about how to set up XFN ‘me’ values in a bunch of services?”  At this stage of social networking, that sort of thing is necessary.  Without interim steps, the information sitting in those services will stay scattered and isolated.  Thanks to the me value, XFN offers a very simple, lightweight solution to the problem of identity consolidation.  As I recently wrote in a poster proposal:

As the Web has evolved, a number of personal-information sites have arisen.  Some of these sites exist to help create and increase professional contacts; others are intended to help bring together one’s friends or even find potential mates.  In every case, however, the user must create a new profile for each site.  Each of these profiles constitutes a small island of identity.  Over time, a person can end up with a fairly extensive identity archipelago.

Unfortunately, there has… been no easily created machine-discoverable way to bridge the gaps between the islands.  An author might publish a page containing links to all his profiles, but to an indexing engine, these links are no more or less notable than his links to the latest amusing Flash animations.

With XFN, it becomes very easy for an author to annotate a link to indicate that its destination is one of the islands in his identity archipelago.  This kind of link is referred to as a “me” link throughout the rest of this paper.  By creating symmetric links between the islands, the author can make it possible to consolidate the various pieces of his online identity into a more cohesive whole.

The same is true for a person’s links to other people.  By pulling them all into one place, or at least by marking them all with XFN and then using “me” links to tie together all the bits of his identity archipelago, real social networking start to emerge.

Now, one of the things that people like to carp about is the limits of XFN.  The first of the two most common complaints are that it’s impossible to capture the full range of human relationships in fifteen words.  We agree.  The other complaint is that we only picked “positive” terms; that is, we have friend but not enemy.  We did that on purpose, as we explained; besides, it’s called XHTML Friends Network, which should be kind of a clue.  Apparently this choice makes us arrogant, or clueless, or some combination thereof.  Maybe that’s so.  What I find interesting is that the people who complain that we didn’t include their preferred relationship terms never do anything about it.  They just complain.  What’s so interesting to me is that the guys who decided to focus on the positive went out and did something; those who want to mix in the negative seem to have nothing to offer except complaints.  That says something, I think.

Because XFN is not, nor was it ever meant or represented to be, the final word on social protocols.  We fully expect it to either be improved, or else superseded.  Suppose one of the critics actually did something to address his concerns, and published an “XHTML Relationships Network”.  This could include all the XFN values, plus their negative counterparts, plus whatever else is thought to be useful by the author(s) of this new XRN.  At that point, you have competing protocols.  The more useful one will win.  The loser will be eventually discarded, although some of its memetic genes may live on.  This isn’t a problem: it’s a strength.

It’s also in many ways the entire point of XHTML Meta Data Profiles.  See a need to fill?  Fill it!  At the end of his column, Berlind says in an update:

Looking at the XFN profile, it suddenly dawned on me that perhaps there should be an XBN/XB2BN that’s strictly for the relationships between businesspeople/businesses. Thoughts?

Here are my thoughts: go for it!  He’s almost certainly right that there’s utility in such a protocol.  All it takes now is for someone to look at the problem and write up an XMDP-based protocol that solves the problem.  The microformat approach makes this so simple, pretty much anyone could do it.  What’s needed is someone who actually will do it.

At some point down the road, it’s possible that the protocols that define personal and professional relationships would merge.  Again, that’s completely in keeping with the vision we have.  The whole point of this kind of ad-hoc semantic enrichment is that it’s evolutionary.  New players will enter the field, and will either prosper or wither.  Anyone can join in.  There is no star chamber of lofty experts to say whether your idea passes some sort of ideological muster.  It’s a great big landscape, and there a million conceptual niches to be filled.

As those niches are filled, the ways in which different protocols interact can trigger truly astounding results… but for thoughts on that aspect of the whole subject, you’ll have to come see my talk.

Me, Me, Me, Me, and… Me

As part of the XFN 1.1 update, we created an XFN and… page to cover the ways in which XFN compares to, contrasts with, and intersects with other things.  For example, that’s where we moved the XFN and FOAF document, which I really need to get around to updating.  We also debuted what Tantek loves to call “the sand-dollar diagram”.  Lacking any other vector drawing tool on my laptop, I used OmniGraffle to create it.  One of these days I really should get around to acquiring a more appropriate tool for that kind of thing.

With the spread of networking sites, people have effectively created identity islands.  My profile on LinkedIn, for example, describes a little bit of my identity.  A Ryze profile would be another part, and an Orkut profile a third.  There would no doubt be some overlap in information, but at the same time each profile will likely have some unique information about me.  The me value can be used to create bridges between these identity islands, providing—possibly for the first time—a way to tie all these disparate bits together in an easily discoverable way.  An XFN search engine (like Rubhub) could use this value to compile a unified identity profile for a person.  Similarly, it should be possible to create a tool that follows me links to pull identity information into one place.  As more profiles are created, new me links can be added and aggregated.

The only real roadblock at the moment is the inability to add XFN links from site profiles back to a central location.  Thus, in the sand dollar diagram, the links out to various services are green (XFN Friendly) while the links back from those services are blue or gray, depending on whether or not there’s an ability to add any kind of link at all.  If every service allowed users to supply a URL for a me link, then the connection would be bi-directional and thus more credible.  We don’t have to wait for that to happen, though.  If I link from meyerweb.com to various profiles with me links, that’s a good start toward consolidating my identity islands.

XFN 1.1 Released

The gang at GMPG (which includes me) has published the XFN 1.1 profile.  This is the profile we presented at Hypertext 2004, where we got a positive response to both the overall concept and the new values.  They are contact, kin, and me.  All three are the result of feedback we received after XFN 1.0 was released.  Of the three, I find contact the most interesting, mostly because I would never have thought of it.  To me, it seems like a value that is more about professional status than personal relationship, but a lot of people saw things otherwise.  So in it went.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term kin, it refers to any member of your family, either a blood relative or someone closely related through marriage.  As an example, all of my aunts and uncles are kin, even though half of them aren’t blood relations, having married into the family.  It was the most compact ungendered term we could find besides “family”, which didn’t feel right.

As for me, that was a value we debated for inclusion in 1.0 almost literally up to the hour we released it.  In the end, we cut it because we were resolved to include only those values we felt sure would be useful, thus keeping things as simple and lightweight as possible.  We figured that if people wanted the value, they’d tell us—and they did.  Tantek and I batted around some thoughts concerning uses of me while we were at the conference and I think we may be on to some interesting ideas.  Hopefully they’ll hold up after further discussion.

If you have a comment on XFN 1.1 or an idea for a value we could add to a future version of XFN, let us know.

North By Northeast

I’m back home in Cleveland and got my Carolyn fix, arriving just in time to be able to hold her for a few minutes before putting her to bed, so all’s right with the world.  There’s a good half-foot of snow or more on the ground, and that makes things even more right—it’s mid-March, and that’s a time for snow.  I’ll appreciate spring when it comes, as I did a year ago tomorrow, but for now I want to enjoy winter.  Even if it did mean having to dig my car out from under a whole lot of wind-sculpted snow.

Now that I’m home, it’s time to list my SXSW04 XFN (those who are newly rel="met", anyway) in the order they came to mind:

If we met for the first time at SXSW04 and I neglected to list you, get in touch and I’ll make with the fixing.

Friends Galore

This morning’s panel seems to have gone well, although since I haven’t seen the audience feedback I’m basing that impression on the nice comments I got from people who talked to me afterward.  There was also a very low walkout rate during the session itself, which is always a good sign, especially in an audience as crowded as was ours.

At the Web Awards last night, where Dave Shea quite deservedly walked away with the Developer’s Resource and Best of Show awards for the CSS Zen Garden, Jennifer Neiderst Robbins‘ son Arlo got passed around between Jeff Veen, Anitra Pavka, and Steve ChampeonJeff Veen holds Arlo in his hands as they give each other inquisitive looks.  It was kind of odd to watch somebody else’s child be subjected to a round of Pass The Baby, and fun to be able to watch the holders without having to worry so much about the baby.  (It’s a parent thing—when someone else is holding your baby, you watch the baby to see what it does.  And to make sure it doesn’t get dropped.)  Arlo never did make it over to me, but that’s okay.  I’d far rather hold Carolyn.  I miss her, and I miss Kat.

During the end-of-day sessions, Tantek delivered a short presentation on XFN during the panel titled “Ridiculously Easy Group Forming.”  Strangely, he was really the only one to directly talk about the easy part, although the Easy Journal portion of the panel did cover ways in which the service is easy.  The audience seemed quite interested in XFN, which was very cool.  Of course, Tantek did a great job of presenting the important core lessons of XFN in relation to social networking solutions; these were, in effect:

  1. Tackle a small problem and solve it in a simple way.
  2. Release the solution into the wild.
  3. Watch adoption spread and tools multiply.

There were many good questions about the structure of XFN from the attendees, to the point that Tantek was afraid he’d hijacked the panel.  I told him that the audience asked about what interested them the most.  In the cheap swag department, Matt printed up stickers and badge inserts that were large versions of the “XFN Friendly” image to distribute, and I spotted several attendees’ badges marked as being friendly.

After the day’s sessions I headed to the “Long Live Webmokey!” party, where I proudly wore my Webmonkey toque and finally met some of the staff members (like Kristin and Evany) with whom I’d swapped many an e-mail back in the day.  When the smoke drove me out of doors, I spent some time chatting with Steve Champeon and Pableux Johnson, who congratulated me on Carolyn’s arrival and were curious to know why Kat and I wanted children.  Even though I’d already had to think about and answer that question last year, I realized I didn’t have any better answer for them than, “It was important to us.”

Feeling worn down, I took in an excellent Italian dinner at Carmelo’s with Molly, Christopher, and Anitra, and then retired to my room for the night.  Shortly thereafter, a thunderstorm swept in from the west, driving rain through the streets.  I spared a sympathetic thought for all the people trying to get from one of the numerous parties to another, and enjoyed the lighting flowing from cloud to cloud and silhouetting the Austin skyline.

[Sorry this update is tardy, but the internet access died on my floor of the hotel last night, and once I reached the conference cloud on Tuesday morning I was too busy saying goodbye to everyone to get online, so posting had to wait until I got home.]

Gathering Stormclouds

Okay, maybe Tantek’s right and the CSS I devised yesterday wasn’t the greatest (note to self: avoid writing journal entries at 4:45am).  And yes, it would be more elegant, at least on the markup side, to use the href values to determine how to style links.  It feels a touch clumsy, for some reason, maybe because the selectors end up being so long and I’m used to short selectors.  Go check out what he has to say and suggestions for better selectors, and while you’re at it go take a look at substring selectors to get ideas for how to do even better.  (I don’t think anyone supports *= yet, so you’re likely to have to use ^= instead.)

Back in high school, my best friend Dave and I devised a scenario where water shortages in the American southwest became so severe that states literally went to war with each other over water rights and access, fragmenting the United States in the process.  It never really went much of anywhere, just an idea we kicked around, and that I thought about trying to turn into a hex-based strategic wargame but never did.  It’s always lurked in the back of my head, though, the idea of climate-driven warfare.

According to Yahoo! News, a Pentagon report asserts that climate change is a major threat to national security; well, actually, to global security.  And that if the global climate crossing a “tipping point,” the changes will be radical and swift.  In such a situation, economic upheaval will be the least of our concerns—we’ll be more worried about adding to the climate shifts with the aftereffects of nuclear exchanges.

I actually read about this on Fortune.com a few weeks ago, and although now you have to be a member to read the full article at Fortune, there’s a copy at Independent Media TV.  The Fortune article characterizes the report as presenting the possible scenarios if global climate shifts occur, but not claiming that they are happening or will happen.  It also says that the Pentagon agreed to share the unclassified report with Fortune, whereas the Yahoo! News article says the report was leaked after attempts to hush it up.  For that matter, the Yahoo! News article makes it sound like the report claims that The Netherlands will definitely be uninhabitable by 2007, and so on.  According to the Fortune article, that was one aspect of a scenario, not a concrete prediction.  This is probably due to the Yahoo! News article being a summary of an article in The Observer, which is a production of The Guardian and claims to be the “best daily newspaper on the world wide web.”  Uh-huh.

So I guess I’m saying read the Fortune article, as it gives more information and takes a more balanced tone—not that it sounds any less disturbing, really.  The fact that the report was commissioned at all suggests that the subject is being taken seriously at the Pentagon, which is not exactly a gathering place for leftist wackos.  I’ll be very interested to see what reaction, official or otherwise, is triggered by this report in the weeks to come.  My fear is that it doesn’t matter any more, that whatever accusatory words might get thrown around will just be insignificant noise lost in the rising wind.

April 2014
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