Thoughts on technology and social web

April 4, 2009

Micro formats and web conversations

Filed under: Social Networking — Ravikant Cherukuri @ 4:56 am

Conversations on the web happen via e-mail/IM/posts and comments/groups/social network feeds/proprietary web sites/SMS etc. The meaning of the data transmitted is understood by the sender and receiver. The medium is just a pipe for the users to communicate.

There are concepts in a conversation that are more semantic. For example, on IM, I give my address to a friend. The fact that this is an address is lost in the medium I used to transfer the data. If that was preserved, my friend could have beamed that address to his smart phone and the phone would have mapped the directions for him. There are some things in the web today that work this way. For example, if I send you an email with a Jpeg, your email reader understands that its an image. If I send you a url, it indicates to you that its clickable. We take these for granted. Micro formats extend this model to higher level concepts.

Def “Designed for humans first and machines second, microformats are a set of simple, open data formats built upon existing and widely adopted standards.”

For example, take hCalendar. This can be used to represent a calendar event. For example (from the wiki) consider this event:

<div class="vevent">
  <h3 class="summary">XYZ Project Review</h3>
  <p class="description">Project XYZ Review Meeting</p>
  <p>To be held on <abbr class="dtstart" title="1998-03-12T08:30:00-05:00">12 March 1998 from 8:30am EST</abbr>
  until <abbr class="dtend" title="1998-03-12T09:30:00-05:00">9:30am EST</abbr></p>
  <p>Location: <span class="location">1CP Conference Room 4350</span></p>
  <small>Booked by: <span class="uid"></span> on
  <abbr class="dtstamp" title="19980309T231000Z">9 Mar 1998 6:00pm</abbr></small>

Which look like this in the browser:

XYZ Project Review

Project XYZ Review Meeting

To be held on 12 March 1998 from 8:30am EST until 9:30am EST

Location: 1CP Conference Room 4350

Booked by: on 9 Mar 1998 6:00pm


This is human readable and machine readable. When you send this to a user in an IM, the user can read it and import it into his primary calendar with a click. Of course, the IM client can recognize that its an event and show you just the title and an icon to import or tell you if you have any schedule conflicts. There are many such micro-formats that are already defined for us to use. Like hCard for people and organizations, VoteLinks for opinions ratings and reviews etc. And you could always define your own.

One road block for microformat adoption in canned/server generated content is that traditionally content on web is treated as text and the authoring tools today don’t support (at least none that I know of) microformats. The problem is much more manageable for user generated content. When you are writing a blog you have handy tools to add images and links to your post. In an IM windows you have handy emote-icons. Why not have short-cuts to add data in microformats to the conversation. These can be saved by the consumer of the content and imported into other applications. As the microformat itself is HTML, there is always a default rendering if the receiving application does not understand the format.

Some scenarios I can think of that will benefit from this.

  • Drag and drop a outlook contact on an IM buddy. The buddy receives a vCard format data (that might look like a visiting card) that he could right click on and choose to file it.
  • On you see a review for kindle that you want to share with your friend. You could send an hReview formatted review to your friend (without typing it yourself of course. Your browser can help you there maybe)
  • Share the location of a restaurant by sharing the geo location in the geo microformat.
  • Share a listing from craigs list with a buddy using hListing.

On the browser/IM client, tools to save and mine microformats will make it easier for users to collect these and share. Visual Studio like intelli-sense to make it each to express in terms of microformats and make it as easy as using emote icons in IM.

Interesting reading :

Microformats – Part 0: Introduction to Microformats
Microformats – Part 1: Structured Data Chaos
Microformats – Part 2: The Fundamental Types
Microformats – Part 3: Introducing Operator


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