microformats, Technology

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.

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8 thoughts on “Stowe Boyd launches Microsyntax.org

  1. I wish I had more intelligent things to say other than I fully concur. Specifically, the idea that execution of ideas in the wild because of lack of adoption is why they ultimately fail. That’s true both in the context you’re talking about here as well as business in general. This is where I insert Eric Ries’ name and jump the shark.

    I’m glad you’re on that board Chris. Keep up the good work/advocacy.

  2. Great post Chris and like the approach. I also think what we need to consider is that what’s actually emerging is a new medium based on public micro-messages. Not only is this medium leading to the real-time web but it with its ‘micro’ and ‘public’ attributes it has the potential to be the most accessible and participatory public medium in history.

    While most attention has been on the commercial application which is beginning to deliver on some practical use cases, the potential for social impact is huge. There is a big opportunity to consider this in the early stages of protocol, standards, and infrastructure and keep an eye to optimizing it for public benefit. This goes squarely back to the spirit with which the web was created and the greatest need the web can serve tomorrow.

  3. Decent post, Chris. I also look forward to microsyntax.org as a means for furthering the discussion.

    You mention adoption as the critical factor in success, and I agree. But there are many barriers to adoption, not just going against what people do. The history of technology is that people change what they do when a technology allows them to do something they could not do before.

    Though I think there are a number of reasons for the failure of many (most?) microformats, one certainly has to be the fact that they are all complex, one-off efforts with few underlying technical themes. As an implementer of any application that might consume a microformat, I have to weigh the implementation cost with the value. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been demonstrated that most microformats provide enough value to end users to justify that work.

    On the other hand (and not discounting the nightmare that it can be), XML makes it easy for applications to consume arbitrary data. Interpreting that data is certainly another problem that is complex on its own (e.g. understanding an XML Schema document or a WSDL), but at least getting an application to read the data and turn it into an abstract representation is trivial. Once applications can easily consume data–and the easier the better–one significant barrier to adoption is removed and the opportunity for users to find value opens up.

    The ability to embed arbitrary, structured data in message streams, on Twitter et al., IM, SMS, email, and beyond, is unquestionably useful, and the way this is done has to be easy and useful to both application providers and end users. This is exactly the reason why I and several others have proposed the Twitter Data specification (http://twitterdata.org), with the goal of providing a formal means for embedding arbitrary data in Twitter messages in a way that works nicely for people and machines, in a way that is searchable, and a way that is open enough to build higher-level constructs on top (e.g. semantic triples). Without this formality, it’s a free-for-all, and implementation of any particular micro-/nano-/pico- format is increasingly unlikely.

  4. Interesting, and I can only agree, since adding more structure to tweets makes data mining easier.

    Something worth pointing out is that # and @ got their start when the service was still rather young and most users were technologically affluent. Disseminating structs throughout the system, I think, will be much harder now, though I’m sure you’ve considered this. Maybe if you got Ashton Kutcher to adopt new microsyntax…

    I’m very curious about how you plan to evaluate the success of proposals. I’d love to get into a deeper discussion on that sometime.

  5. Pingback: New microsyntax for Twitter: three pointers and the slasher « LocalLab : Foire aux Infos

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