Sunday, February 19, 2006

The rise (and fall?) of microformats

I've written about microformats before and I've been thinking a lot about them since I read Ian Kallen's post about distributed conversations last month, and this post has been sitting in my edit queue gathering dust while I thought about it...

It isn't much use embedding all that data into your pages, or feed, if you can't get it back out again and thats always been the problem even before microformats arrived on the scene. Vast amounts of data are sloshing around the web, getting passed back and forth, that most users don't see and that gets consumed only by a few specialist sites and programs. Interfaces that let the user see the embedded data are still few and far between.

When we're creating microformats we have to think pretty hard about what the target audience is, and whether the meta-data you're embedding into your data is supposed to be machine readable. I've been involved in various standards processes for a while now, and the fatal flaw in quite a few proposals is unclear meta-data. There isn't much point embedding data which isn't supposed to be seen by a human if it takes human judgement to discern what it means.

The success, or failure, of a standard is tied very tightly with user uptake, if people in the trenches see that your standard is useful to them and it takes less effort to adopt it than for them to roll their own, they will. If it's actually less effort to roll their own, if your standard is too complex or badly documented, or poorly implemented then they will. Unlike you they have no investment in the standards process. When it comes down to it, users don't care about standards, they just want to get stuff done.

I'm starting to worry that microformats are falling between the cracks, not because they're too complex, but because there are so damn many of them and nobody seems sure which will end up being "adopted" and which will end up being ignored, and many of them overlap in scope. Think about that next time you want to create a microformat, can you get your stuff done using someone else's work? You don't have to reinvent the wheel every time you do something...