Thoughts on HTML5, RDFa and Microformats

Ian Hickson is leading the HTML5 effort, and so it was somewhat discouraging to read the following coming from him and several others on the list:

Ian Hickson wrote:
You can create your own vocabularies without clashing with the Microformats community and without introducing extensions to HTML.

Many people seem to have this misconception that you can create vocabularies by yourself, call them a Microformat, and promote them as a Microformat without going through the Microformats Process. Ask anybody that has gone through the Microformats community to create a standard and they can tell you that it is a very rigorous process that rejects ad-hoc vocabularies being called “Microformats”. Anybody that doesn’t go through the process cannot call what they have a standard in any sense of the word – at best, it’s a collection of class names that solves your problem, but it is most certainly not a Microformat.

If you don’t get your vocabulary through the Microformats process, you will not have support of the community, including the people that are writing the Microformats tools. We have written our own semantic web processor called Fuzzbot – we do not implement things that have not reached to the draft stage through the Microformats process. I’ve had the pleasure to work with Mike Kaply, who is the author of Operator, and he is very cautious not to implement Microformats that have not reached the draft stage. In short, if you don’t go through the Microformats process, you will not have the support of one of the largest semantic web communities on the ‘net.

That may sound isolationist but there are several good reasons that all Microformats go through the process. These are:

  1. To ensure that the vocabulary is solving a real problem.
  2. To ensure that the vocabulary actually addresses the real problem.
  3. To utilize the wisdom of the masses to address the real problem.
  4. To ensure that the Microformats ecosystem of vocabulary terms work cleanly with one another.

It is that last item in the list that Ian and others on the list do not quite grok, it’s difficult to understand until you have been involved in the details of creating a Microformat. Scoping and vocabulary term collisions are a HUGE problem in the Microformats community. As the community grows, it is only getting worse – there is even a page on the wiki that is devoted to these issues (authored by Manu Sporny).

It is because of these accepted limitations in Microformats that we require people to go through the community process. It is because of these limitations that most of the Microformats process discussions are so very strained. Not only do you have to care about your own vocabulary when creating a Microformat, but you have to care about every other Microformat vocabulary in existence. This is a fundamental scalability problem for Microformats – it is also accepted as a limitation that we will live with in the community. However, to say that you can create a vocabulary outside of the Microformats community and achieve widespread acceptance of that vocabulary is nothing more than wishful thinking at this point in time.

The mistakes that Microformats made…

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