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.