Contact Information, FOAF, Microformats, and Microtemplates

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I didn’t realize what a can of worms I was really opening with the ContactCard popup contact information script I put out yesterday. And it’s not about the functionality of the script as much as where the script gets its data from.

In wanting to Get Things Done and get the script out there, the contact information that the script uses when it displays its information is actually stored in a JavaScript recordset that gets specified by the person setting it up on the web site. A good first step, to be sure, but we all hate maintaining contact information in multiple places - what if the script could read from external data sources?

In the last, like, day, I’ve become so much more vastly aware of these peripheral web development efforts that seem to be going on almost under the radar (and gathering some severe momentum).

First I learned about FOAF - Friend of a Friend - a way to specify contact information and relationships in a common XML format based on RDF. This sounded like a keen thing, especially in relation to the ContactCard script: wouldn’t it be cool to just say “user ‘tillig’ has his information stored over at such-and-such URL” and have the script automatically get that information for you so you don’t have to maintain it?

That didn’t seem like too much of a stretch, but FOAF seems to still be pretty young and changing, and it’d be some interesting work to do in creating a JavaScript FOAF document parser.

While thinking about that, I contacted Phil Haack, who cooked up a script that displays XFN (XHTML Friends Network) information. I thought he might have some input on how to best get this data or some ideas on other ways to retrieve centrally maintained contact information.

That’s when I really started getting into the notion of microformats and microtemplates.

Microformats seem to be, basically, the bastardization of existing HTML elements and attributes to describe information. hCard, a microformat for contact information that mimics the functionality of vCard, uses CSS classes to define elements for each bit of contact info being provided. (I do something sort of similar with the ContactCard script - I look for elements with a specific CSS class and those are the ones that get updated with the popup contact card behavior.) This is on a whole new level, though. For example, here’s a simple hCard with my name: <div class="vcard"><span class="fn">Travis Illig</span></div>

The XHTML Friends Network microformat is another one, using the “rel” attribute on links to specify the relation of someone else to you. (I’m not super convinced of the usefulness of this right now; it’s neat, but I’m having a rough time coming up for a really great use case.)

So I could use hCard as a data source, too. And write the parser for that, if there isn’t one already out there. The problem I see is that you can specify multiple hCards on a single HTML page… so how would I know which one to use?

From microformats, we move into microtemplates. Microtemplates are sort of like microformats in that they, too, change the meaning of existing HTML (CSS class in particular) to suit their needs. This time, though, it’s much closer to the idea of ASP.NET templates in data binding - you specify a set of empty HTML elements with specific CSS classes, then you use a microtemplate engine to take a set of data and bind it to the HTML element template. You can see a more concrete example of this at microtemplates.org.

I usually feel like I’m pretty up on web technology, but I gotta say, I feel blindsided. Like I just woke up and suddenly all this change just happened and I don’t know where I was. Interesting stuff, and I’m somehow just oblivious.

And I have mixed feelings about it. Was XML not good enough? Was it too specific? HTML always seemed to me to be predisposed to distributing non-structured data - is changing it to try to distribute structured data a good idea, or is it more like a square peg/round hole situation?

Regardless, I guess it’s time to jump on board. Here we go!

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