Is Usefulness Inversely Proportional to Specificity?

Thinking about microformats and RDF, I'm wondering how microformats might succeed where RDF hasn't. To be clear, success to me is determined by penetration of the metadata format into run of the mill XHTML, and the ease at which someone can inject the metadata right into the XHTML document. In other words, success is awarded to the metadata format that has the lowest barrier of entry.

Will microformats succeed because they can and are so vague? Is RDF asking people to be too specific? Is the usefulness of a metadata markup format for the web inversely proportional to the specificity of the metadata itself?

Case in point. Go ahead and try to define what foaf#knows means. It certainly means something different from one person to another. The specification itself opens itself up to interpretation.

> knows - A person known by this person (indicating some level of reciprocated interaction between the parties).


> We take a broad view of 'knows'

This vagueness is a strength of the FOAF specification. To constrain this definition would force the majority of users to spend time questioning if their particular relationship falls withing the confines of the definition, or they would simply ignore the definition and use the relationship anyway and thus polluting the metadata space.

Microformats seem to have the same broad usage allowances. They aren't concerned with single URIs for referencing topics, nor are they concerned with defining the semantics of the microformat with some complex ontology language. Microformats are simple, and whose meanings are easily conveyed between humans. That's right, I said humans.

A successful metadata format for the web must be easily understood by humans, even if it is to be useful for machines. RDF and OWL seem to have the machine in mind first. This is opposite of what makes the Web so successful and useful. OWL doesn't appreciate vagueness, nor does it allow for expressing "sort of" and "almost" clarifications, both of which are vitally important if any true meaning is to be conveyed.

Microformats punt on this issue, and I give them credit. Just tell me the terms to use, and I'll use them. Let us all share these simple terms. These terms' meanings are vague to a computer, but clear enough to a human. And a human is the one that will program the logic to handle the terms, so "good enough" seems to be just fine here.

The Web is vague, and anyone can say anything about anything. While it's true that RDF and OWL don't prohibit this basic freedom, I haven't seen how they help at all with sorting the wheat from the chaff. Microformats, on the other hand, don't try to solve this problem either. But their baggage is minimal, easily embedded into XHTML, and otherwise easily understood and deployed by humans.

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