Why microformats are the glue between web content and a richer online experience

Why microformats are the glue between web content and a richer online experience In response to my introduction, Andy Hume asked me on the Microformats-discuss list:

What kind of microformat support are you looking to get in to these publishing tools? Obviously wordpress has built in support for XFN. What else are you trying to get happening?

So now it’s time for me to put on my visionary cap and mention a couple ideas I’ve been stewing on about why microformats make good sense for web publishers and web tool builders. I won’t get too pedantic or preach to the choir. Rather, I’m just gunna outline some of the obvious things to me that make creating the lowercase “semantic web” worthwhile, assuming, of course, that certain enabling technologies and innovations occur.

First, let me point out that the cost of implementing microformats is less than minimal and in fact, in some cases, can give you a net gain given the reduction on time spent figuring out what CSS classes to use. As a former-web-developer-junkie, it was my job to come up with unoriginal ways of identity bits of content on webpages so that I or someone else could come back later and figure out what the heck I was doing.

This lead to me to do things like code lists of people with a container that specified that, indeed, I was working with a list of people and not dates, dogs or envelopes. Why would this be useful? Well, what if you wanted to use a different icon to denote a person, date, dog or envelope? You’d need to know what class of object you were working with. (Just bear with me here.) This becomes a pain when you have to do this over and over again and or work on someone else’s code. However, with a sufficient store of standard microformats at our disposal, such situations could theoretically be avoided. Rather than having to reinvent a classing system everytime, I could simply turn to the related microformat standard and call it a day.

So that’s great and all, but why do you bother touching code anymore anyway with such able CMS and blog tools available? Why not just bake it into those publishing tools and be done with it?

The short answer is that that’s happening, and we need to see more of this work get done. The problem seems to be related to chickens, eggs, carts and horses, in no particular order. And until they all get sorted out, there’s a great deal of developer apathy best captured in lines like, “Why should I care?”

Well, better than just spouting out about the practical benefits for web developers, there are functional benefits which I expect to see available in the coming months. As a prelimary example, check this out:

I created a Greasemonkey user script that will find those hCalendar events and provide a link to import them into any calendar program that supports the iCalendar format (most notably Apple’s iCal and Mozilla’s Sunbird). What does this mean? Well any time you see an event on the web that has hCalendar information, you can click a link and it’ll be added to your calendar so you don’t have to copy the information by hand.

unmediated: Greasemonkey and Microformats

So just imagine once this kind of support becomes native in the browser… that’s when really interesting things start to become possible. And soon, I’ll outline just how I see this happening.

On designing the CivicSpace logo

CivicSpace LogoIf you haven’t seen it, the latest logo for CivicSpace is an aggressive, don’t-mess-with-us symbol of the new politics. The logotype is a mix between Neutraface Heavy and the wonderful handmade type of Michael Schwab. It’s bold, unique and classic. It’s also intentionally a throwback to 40s-style poster lettering, to invoke a sense of old-world patriotism found in WWII US propaganda.

The graphic elements are obviously stars and stripes, as the predominant leaning of CivicSpace has been towards the overtly political. After all, DeanSpace started out with the Howard Dean campaign, and we see a large number of our users directing the power of CivicSpace to grassroots political campaigns. To that typically American audience, we need to communicate strength, power, innovation and simplicity. The use of the stars and stripes are intended to communicate those qualities, despite the fact that to most folks outside the continent, those same symbols represent American hegemony, imperialism and all that’s so ugly about the United States.

The actual triangular design of the stripes and the detached stars have a greater symbolic meaning than the connotations I sought to invoke. In fact, my intention was to represent the kids in Eminem’s prolific Mosh video… rising up together against a political machine that has made their votes irrelevant and their ideas seem even less valued.

Each star represents a head; the stripe a body. And the triangular shape indicates perspective – that this grassroots “army” is made up of thousands of individuals – as far as the eye can see.

But just because my intention was to communicate these things through my design doesn’t mean that I was successful. Nor does it mean that I think that the current design is final or that I’ve even captured what CivicSpace really means to me yet.

In fact, I still feel like I need to find some way of communicating “grassroots”, “community”, “social networking”, “friendliness”, “ease of use”, and in general, more feminine attributes like “hope” and “inclusivity”. Already, the designs I’ve done for the CivicSpace homepage have started out overly masculine and only when I pulled away from the logo did I start to reveal something much more friendly, feminine and closer to what I actually envision using for the final design.

So after getting additional feedback last from some European and Canadian Drupalites, I’m considering yet another return to the drawing board – perhaps even returning to a prior design. The CivicSpace identity remains elusive and I’m not quite sure what’s going to bring about the kind of finality that I’m so ready for.