Microformats and extensibility

I’ve been following the chatter over microformats (XFN, xFolk, hCalendar, and their kin) for some time, but having been having a hard time formulating a response to all the discussion. In particular, the discussion over at Ryan’s blog and some postings such as this one by Danny Ayers have triggered further thinking.

The idea of ’emergent semantics’ is an appealing one, and as many have argued lower-case semantics are far more likely to be adopted by a broad sweep of the web development community in the short-term than are carefully constructed XML vocabularies, or RDF representations of resources. But at the same time I fear that this sort of format will delay adoption of ‘true’ Semantic Web technologies, and balk at the apparent lack of extensibility the microformats offer.

As I work on plans for some future web app development, RDF has become more and more appealing because it is decentralised and allows for the representation of complex relationships between items. If I need to attribute a property that my current vocabulary doesn’t support, there is a standard system of drawing in another namespace which my tools can automatically understand. By contrast, (X)HTML only allows for rudimentary relationships, and there is no standardised way of indicating within the document which vocabularies tools should expect.

That’s not to say that microformats aren’t useful. Now that we have a large community of developers building standards-compliant sites it makes sense to work towards standardised class names for certain page elements and types of content. Having developed a number of screen-scrapers (and suffered the pain when a non-standards redesign then obliterates all that work), I’d love to be rid of the need to re-code whenever a manager decides a layout needs a slight change. But it will be to the benefit of all of us if we ensure that that standardisation doesn’t distract us from improving tools for generating and interpreting RDF, simplifying content-negotiation options, and otherwise making the web more interoperable.

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