“From the Trenches: The Social Web Workshop” coming to Europe in September

Late this September I’ll be traveling with Brynn to speak at a conference in Helsinki called MindTrek. I’m looking forward to this trip for several reasons, and one of them is that I’ll be putting on an independent workshop called “FROM THE TRENCHES: THE SOCIAL WEB WORKSHOP”.

The workshop will start with a synthesis of several of my past talks on the social web.

It’ll cover an abbreviated history of social networking as background for what’s happening now — and lead into a framework for understanding what’s about to happen on the web as it becomes more social based on identity, relationships, and activity streams.

From digital identity to social objects, I’ll dig deeper into emerging technologies like OpenID, OAuth, Portable Contacts, Activity Streams and microformats, and take a look at bleeding edge protocols like WebFinger and PubSubHubBub. I’ll also spend time with the OpenSocial and Facebook platforms.

And though the specific technologies are important, I do want to make sure that attendees leave with an integrated, holistic view of how the open social web operates, is changing, and how it can be used to reach a wider audience and enhance community engagement. I expect that that’s one of the things that will set this workshop apart — providing a more accessible approach to ideas that can sometimes seem obtuse or obscured by jargon or technical terms. Given my background in user experience design and various marketing projects, I’m quite confident that I’ll be able to offer a unique and accessible perspective backed up with real world experience.

The workshop will be held on September 30, from 9am to 4pm. Basic refreshments — coffee and snacks — will be provided. The exact location is still being worked out, but it will be somewhere convenient in Central Helsinki (the MindTrek conference is actually two hours away in Tempere).

Register now

I’m open to bringing the workshop elsewhere or taking it to private companies who are looking for a more intimate, personalized experience while I’m in Europe. If you’re interested or want to learn more, do contact me.

In defense of microformats

Microformats LogoI’d never received an Open Letter until Alan Morrison posted one earlier today in response to an interview I gave to Straight.com about microformats and the (lowercase) semantic web. For the sake of completeness, here’s what he wrote:

Chris, judging from your interview in Straight.com, you seem like a thoughtful guy. But you don’t seem to understand that the Microformat and Semantic Web folks aren’t that far apart. You cite the prevalence of non-standard HTML to support your contention that we’ll never use ontologies. But in the same article, you say the comic book store you frequent has its own iPhone app. So people can write their own iPhone apps (or at least have friends write apps for them), but they can’t put together their own ontologies?

Simple tagging has obvious benefits–just look at popularity of folksonomies. I don’t disagree with you at all there. But one of the advantages of the RDF/RDFS/OWL family of standards is that it’s a metadata umbrella–it can make use of various kinds of metadata, and then add to these. But it certainly helps if the metadata are consistent.

The big advantage of RDF, which you seem to miss entirely, is that it’s a data model that improves on RDBMSes from a data integration standpoint. It’s a data model truly designed for the Web. Have you thought about this at all from the data model level?

I’m not a religious zealot when it comes to standards. Microformats sounds as reasonable as RDFa to me, except that the former have no infrastructure underneath them and aren’t consistent.

PwC devoted an entire issue of its Tech Forecast to describing the necessity for this infrastructure and how companies are now using the one the W3C’s developed. If you read this, it might fill in some knowledge gaps for you. It does seem to make good sense for you to build on what others have started, even if you quibble with bits and pieces of it.

I responded to his post with the following comment:

Thanks Alan. I’m happy to take all criticism, corrections and feedback on my perspective. I certainly don’t think that I have all the answers, but I do try to be pragmatic.

I think that I do understand the value of RDF — in theory — but in my world — the social web — I’ve seen very few success stories, or examples in the wild, where RDF and its sibling technologies have made anything demonstrably easier or more ubiquitous. I’ve had the praises of RDF et al sung to me for many years, and yet I consistently see companies large and small run for the hills when it’s mentioned.

Meanwhile, microformats have seen much wider adoption in the wild on the open web — not least of which came in recent successes as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo all have shipped products that leverage various microformats (imperfect though they are, they work with the HTML-based web that people know how to develop for).

Now, I do think that there are success stories out there for RDF et al… namely in the medical and pharmaceutical industries. But what I’ve heard is that those companies are loathe to share the fruits of their labor with the wider community, resulting in non-interoperable ontologies. I thought interoperability was the whole point!

As with most of the things I work on, I can be convinced of most anything if you can demonstrate successes that make sense to me and that resonate beyond me — to unfamiliar audiences. Part of the work of a designer-slash-web-evangelist is listening to the problems that people are experiencing, synthesize what they’re saying, and then putting together the people who are all having the same issues [so that they can collaborate on solutions].

Outside of academic circles, I’ve just not seen the kind of human-scale successes that convince me that the world at large is ready to contemplate the intricacies of getting involved with the semantic web. I’d love to be proven wrong here, so if you have examples to the contrary (besides arguments), I’d be happy to check them out!

So, am I wrong or misguided? I’m waiting for the social network that’s built on RDF that my mom will use, but I’ve just not seen it yet! (And yes, she is on Facebook now!).

Also, by “human-scale”, what I mean is technology that can be authored at the level of the individual — with little depth of learning. HTML is what I would consider “human-scale”, since a lot of people figure out how to write it without formal computer science training. Microformats nestle nicely into HTML writing skills, and so I consider them human-scale.

Stowe Boyd launches Microsyntax.org

hashStowe Boyd launched Microsyntax.org this morning and announced that I will be the first member of his advisory board.

Stowe and I have batted around a number of ideas for making posts on Twitter contain more information than what is superficially presented, and this new effort should create a space in which ideas, research, proposals and experiments can be made and discussed.

Ultimately, my hope is that Microsyntax.org will reach beyond Twitter and provide a forum for thinking through how we encapsulate data in channels that don’t natively support metadata by using conventions that express as much meaning as much as they encode.

Twitter with Channel tagsSince I originally proposed hashtags in August of 2007, I’ve thought a lot about what these conventions mean, and how wide adoption of something can radically elevate the field of competition.

There is a similar opportunity here, where, if the discourse is developed properly, such conventions can actually enable a greater range of expression over narrow channels, allowing for wider participation in and understanding of conversations.

Take, for instance, Stowe’s “GeoSlash” (as christened by Ross Mayfield) proposal. Whether his syntax is the right one (or even necessary!) isn’t something that can be argued rationally. It’s only something that can be investigated through experimentation and observation. To this point, there has been no central convening context in which such a proposal could be brought up, debated, discussed, considered, tinkered with, improved, championed and evaluated.

As a result, countless proposals have been made for baking moremeta” into Twitter’s data stream, but few have really taken off (compared with the relative success of hashtags and @replies).

While I’m sympathetic to arguments (and pleas!) against adding additional structure or formatting to tweets, I think that the bigger opportunity here extends beyond Twitter (which is primarily a public broadcast channel) to other applications, regardless of whether they use Twitter as the message routing infrastructure or not. Indeed, given my recent (and very positive) experience where @AlaskaAir checked me in to my flight over Twitter, you can imagine an opportunity developing where, say, forward-thinking airlines actually collaborate to develop a syntax for expressing checkin requests via some sort of direct SMS-based channel.

The situation of multiple competing-yet-overlapping SMS syntaxes lead me, somewhat mockingly, to start documenting what I called “picoformats“. If I’ve learned anything from the microformats process, it’s that anyone can invent a schema or a format, but getting adoption is the hard part (and also the most valuable). So, in order to promote adoption, you should always try to model behavior that already exists in the wild, and then work to make the intensions of the behavior more clear, repeatable and memorable.

Most microsyntax efforts fail to follow this process, and as a result, fail in the wild. Efforts that employ the scientific method tend to see more success: hashtags modeled the convention started by IRC channels and Jaiku (Joshua Schachter also used the hash to denote tags in the early days of Delicious); the $ticker convention (from StockTwits) follows how many financial trade publications denote stock symbols. And so on.

So when it comes to proposing new behaviors that don’t yet exist in the wild, I think that the Microsyntax.org project will be an excellent place to convene and host conversations and experiments, many of which will admittedly fail. But at minimum, there will be a record of what’s been tried, what the thinking and goals were, and where, hopefully, some modest successes have been achieved.

I’m looking forward to contributing to this effort and helping to stand up the community infrastructure with Stowe. While I’m not eager to see the Twitter stream polluted with characters intended only for computers, I think that there is still much explored ground in what can be accomplished through modest modifications of the way that we communicate over these kinds of narrow, unidimensional channels.