Microformats – cui bono?

by greg on June 22, 2005

If someone out there wants to start publishing and promoting events using an event microformat, Peter Caputa will try and help you get paid for it. I’m not mentioning this because I know and like him. I’m mentioning it because I think Peter’s willingness to pay for microformat usage puts him at odds with the organizations actively trying to build and promote microformats, which are very interested in aggregating microformatted content gratis.

For those not following this, a microformat is a definition for presenting structured information in XHTML, rendering the structured information readable both by humans using a web browser and by machines. Microformats have been proposed for individual contact information, calendars and events, reviews, social network relationships, and so on. If a microformat is incorporated into a published webpage – likely through a blog or other publishing software plugin for ease of use – any machine that comes along to pick it up can grab it and do what they like with it. And that’s where the problems begin. First, you’ve got to have a machine that knows enough to come looking for the microformat. If a microformat is in use on the deep web, it might as well not exist. This means sites that make use of microformats must have a means for the publishers to get in touch with them – say, a pinger – or a crawler that can chew through large amounts of web real estate. Second, these microformats generally don’t include a field for specifying restrictions on republication rights. (I’ve groused about this a bit before.) They therefore will suffer from the same problems as RSS feeds. i) They faciliate aggregation of content by companies with the infrastructure to do so. ii) Any company with that kind of infrastructure is likely going to – likely needs to – find a commercial use for the aggregated information. iii) There’s no current practical means – or strong incentive – to get a share of the profits back to the original producer of the content. Who knows – maybe Google Wallet will solve this problem eventually. But right now, the financial benefit is all on the side of the aggregator.

Of all the commercial entities out there, the big aggregators have the most to gain from microformats, so it’s no surprise to see that companies with content crawlers are pushing this. As for the big blogging publishers like Moveable Type – well, what’s in it for them? The only compelling reason to add microformats is because their user base wants to use microformats – and I don’t think we’re at that stage yet. That’s why Michael Sippey’s comments at Supernova (written up by Suw Charman) make sense to me – he’s saying “when the users want it, they’ll build a plugin for it and use it.” Exactly right. That’s the nice thing about applications that can accomodate plugins – users that want something no longer have to wait for something.

Which brings me full-circle to Peter Caputa. If you want people to decide on an events microformat, Pete, I recommend picking one you like and creating a program that’ll allow people to promote your events and get paid. If there’s no plugins for the platforms your users use – I prefer WordPress – then write some. Your choice of events microformat will win by default, if it’s the only one out there offering an immediate way to get paid. The rest of the batch can be Beta to your VHS.

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