On emergent policy and ‘self’ vs ‘governance in common’

I had “gone away” from the microformats-discuss list a month or so back owing to Andy [Mabbett]’s sometimes abrasive tone and pedantic reasoning. I simply didn’t have time to parse through all the hub-bub, as interesting as it might have been to certain folks in the middle of it.

I’m glad that Tantek has taken action, as I previously encouraged him to do, because, though I value Andy’s positive contributions to the list, the wiki and the community, many of his contributions worked to unravel or undue the positive karma they earned him.

As Tantek said, it’s a balancing act — and Andy was very good providing net neutral contributions.

But, I do not wish to dwell on that topic, for, at the very least, groundbreaking action has been taken finally, and action that we can learn from, in light of what’s also come before us.

What I did want to talk about, however, are two things — namely the meta-centralization that the microformats-dot-org community represents and the emergent policy that microformats, as an effort to codify a series of best practices that become standard in web-transmittable computer code, stands for. My goal is to illustrate the broader purpose and perspective of the work we’re doing, to propose a proper ego-placement with regards to this work, and suggest potential parallels which make the cabal-like governance work in certain circumstances, and unravel in others, even within this community.

  1. Where microformats fits in the broader picture.

    I’ll get this out of the way right now. The terms and names of microformat classes, rel-values and so on don’t matter. They don’t. In many sense, they’re arbitrary, just as AJAX and HTML caught on. They’re simply placeholders for meaning, like the dollar bill is used to transmit the meaning of value in society.

    What is valuable, however, is agreement on terms. Agreement and implementation between organizations and institutions — for implementation is non-binding, but by supporting a common cause, both parties stand to benefit in ways neither is quite sure of yet, but sees no reason to act to the contrary.

    In this case, microformats such as hcard and hcalendar have found wide support, because, unlike other external efforts that tried to reinvent schema, we (Tantek in particular) dispensed with coming up with yet more schema and went with existing convention (note that when we have undertaken the “naming” process with new microformats, that process is often where most of this community’s contention and dissension lies).

    But naming is an ego-driven event that is similar to an artist signing his or her work; and when has a community produced a singular piece of artwork? Rarely, if ever!

  2. Why the microformats community operates as a cabal, and why it should continue to do so.

    Anyone who has participated in this community for some time will know how hard it is to get a new microformat “blessed” — that is, accepted, documented, promoted and ‘officialized’ by the community. There are many microformats efforts that have been relegated to the scrapheap of semantic history or to the personal industry of smaller parties, but very few efforts actually result in what we all would call a microformat when we see it.

    Truth be told, coming up with standards of any kind is a difficult and harried process. There are those among us who have direct experience with closed bodies who have and have not been successful with their charge to develop interoperable standards and who could teach us all about the quagmire that is standards development. But there is strength is focus and in defending an ideal by intuitive fiat, even if it seems unfair to those who have a great deal to offer but do not have the same deftness that the incumbents possess.

    As such, those who have been around from the beginning and have weathered the hills and dales of this community have, in my opinion, earned their seat at the table of the cabal. Fortunately, this cabal is dependent upon the support of the community and upon obeisance of its dicta or else it would simply cease to exist. In that way, the controlling cabal is still very much subservient to the implementations and good works of the community to give it its power; if people stopped implementing or caring about microformats tomorrow, regardless of their perceived arrogance or very real self-assurance, their importance would only be to themselves.

    And in that way, there is an important balance achieved, between despotism and collaboration fueled by meritorious leadership. But, this only scales to such a degree — and feudalism can only hold so long as the needs of the tenants are being met often enough. In the case where centralization and cabalism leads to paralysis of natural growth and species development, certain changes are in order.

  3. On the continued rhizomatic development of microformats

    A rhizome is a type of root-based plant that sends out lateral roots to create offshoot new instantiations of itself. Strawberries are rhizomatic as is ginger. What’s important about a rhizome is that it’s growth path is predicated on similar and equal offshoots being cultivated in environments in which the original may not have been borne. As such, the offshoot is better healed to deal with the foreign environment than if the original had simply been cloned or if it had tried to impose itself on a foreign or hostile soil.

    What does this have to do with this community? Well, for one thing, the cabal-like institution of the microformats community leadership is powerful because we give it its power. And I trust it to look out for our best interests; at the same time, I think that there are opportunities to both relieve some pent up pressure as well as consider alternative models that would continue to effectively spread microformats and the practices that this community espouses beyond our areas of natural influence.

    I think a salient example of this came recently when my partner, Tara Hunt, was consider for deletion on Wikipedia (as I have been consider before). Now, Wikipedians obviously have the interest of Wikipedia in mind when they consider removing things from the index and they also, one might surmise, have the readers in mind as well. However, in both discussions over whether to remove Tara and myself from the index (and this has been repeated for other people in the index as well) it was the *individual bias of Wikipedia editors* that ruled out over the unspoken interest of the minority communities that stood to benefit from our inclusion (one person even suggested that I be kept in the index since I was a “Notable programmer that assisted in creating a few notable groups and browsers” — those who know me know that I can’t code for shyte — and thus the reasoning for keeping would have been arbitrary at best).

    So, coming back to microformats, I think that it’s time, as a matter of governance and Darwinian evolution, that we actual begin thinking about allowing new species of microformats to exist in the wild — they may not receive a “blessing” by us, but I hardly think that all the creatures on earth today were predicted in any non-secular books.

    To this end, I would recommend the specific explanation and characterization, vis-a-vis the microformats process, of efforts that fall into any of these categories:

    1. best practice — a technique has been discovered to make the composition of XHTML documents more consistent or more semantically accurate, for example, using the <cite> tag
    2. design pattern — this isn’t necessary a “data format” in the sense that microformats should be about data interchange, but a design pattern is XHTML that can be used to facilitate the development of human interfaces, and may, for example, leverage existing microformats to achieve its affect (an example could be if flickr applied a behavior to hcards that allowed you to add a person marked up with the hcard microformat to your friends list)… the presence of microformats for a design pattern, however, is purely optional
    3. exploratory/brainstorming — gee, wouldn’t it be great to have a format for Smooth Peanut Butter? — primarily at the early stages, no code is necessary to explore a concept, but an interested or committed following is present and is willing to document the problem they’d like to solve and existing behavior
    4. working draft — essentially a series of conventions or best practices have been developed that may show up in the wild and that are probably “good enough” to start putting into use, with the understanding that changes are still likely
    5. recommendation/specification — this is where things solidify enough so that making a change has some impact… in fact, you could use this stage to definitively mark up your documents knowing that a change is unlikely; what separates this stage from becoming a “real” microformat is implementations in the wild; if no one adopts or puts this work into practice, you have a dead standard that would serve only to clutter the microformat ecosystem
    6. microformat — only when there is mass deployment in the wild, such that, given any significant sampling of pages on the open web, you *might* bump into this format, should it then be considered an actual microformat — for in practice, the community at large (the one that subsumes the microformats community and its leading cabal) has shown its support by adopting the conventions recommended in the spec and have shown their approval of it by *actually deploying it*

      The last and final stage is the hardest, as it requires influence, political might and campaigning; but those are the microformats that will likely last and be embraced — and, futhermore, are the most indisputable because there are real, rather than imagined or potential, statistics behind them.

    7. Note that that list is preliminary, but does pay homage to the W3C process stages, but in a much more informal way:

    1. Working Draft (WD)
    2. Last Call Working Draft
    3. Candidate Recommendation (CR)
    4. Proposed Recommendation (PR)
    5. W3C Recommendation (REC)
  4. Finally, to conclude, I would like to suggest that expanding and making more explicity the preliminary stages of “microformat crystalization” allows external communities to take this effort and expand it beyond our natural sphere of influence or first-hand knowledge. The purpose, of course, is to avoid the kind of Wikipedian-myoptic purview that would lead the effort down the path of exclusivity and stagnation. If anything stands out about the current governance structure, it’s that we have a strong political will in Tantek who does a damn fine job keeping us on target but who, to the detriment of the whole, hasn’t allowed for market forces to take care of the nascent efforts that might emerge external to this list.

    If anything else, I want to avoid at all costs, now that we’re seeing popular support from Firefox et al, the conversion of our rich and diverse community into a Tech Crunch-like kingmaker — that people somehow think they have to win favor with in order to be successful. I think the point is that anyone should be able to build out and see through the execution and development of a microformats, potentially entirely outside of this list, simply by religiously adhering to the principals by which we govern ourselves and allow ourselves to be governed.

    For all the times that Andy has asked Tantek “what gives you the right?” there is an equal opportunity to say, “I give myself the right” to take these ideas, these practices, the fundamental goes and assumptions of this community and to strike out on my own, to pursue that which I know is right and is valuable to a community that those who reside on the list are unfamiliar with. For all Andy’s struggles to have his way, there was a larger goal of using simple principles to semanticize the web that he could have, at any point, taken elsewhere and not forked the community, but done his work in an environment that suited him better.

    I know why Tantek did why he did and I support him in his decision. But I also support Andy’s ability to pioneer his own efforts, not necessary under the microformats name, but under the same principles. And should he be successful, well, he certainly would have some valuable bargaining chips to lay down when he offers his opinions to the us and to the cabal, wouldn’t he?

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

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