HailStorm training wheels

Many folks wouldn't want to be reminded how easy it is to convert sparse input into a detailed profile that includes a phone number, a street address, a satellite photo, and driving directions. Re-entering the basic facts each time perpetuates an illusion of privacy. Yet the reality, for many of us, is that these facts are public.

Since I haven't told Google (or any other directories) to delete my records, I've implicitly given permission for Web applications to use that data. Let me now make that permission explicit. I'd be happy if a Web form made intelligent use of public information about me.

I'd be even happier if I could control the source of that data. Public information is a poorly defined concept, after all. There are online directories that still remember an address I vacated five years ago. I'd like to maintain the facts about me that I deem public. When applications need those facts, I'd like to refer them to a service that dispenses them. [Full story at InfoWorld.com]

When I previewed this column last week, it occurred to me that FOAF is an example of a mechanism that empowers users to assert facts about themselves. I don't expect earth-shattering results from the publication of my own FOAF file. But if for now it does nothing more than neatly encapsulate certain facts I'm sometimes asked to produce -- my picture, my bio -- that's useful.

In theory, it would be straightforward for business homepages to adopt a similar approach. They all do the same stuff: About, Company, Products, News, Contact. There's an obvious XML format for News -- RSS -- but not for these other things. It's easy to imagine a virtuous cycle. Companies publish their facts in a structured form. As a result, more directories list them -- and do so more correctly. As a result, more companies are incented to publish XML facts. And yet in practice, this hasn't happened.

Agreeing on a format is, of course, always a huge obstacle. But I suspect the Web design reflexes that we carry forward from the 90s are also getting in the way. It's been a very long time since I visited a company's home page and thought: "Wow, get a load of those DHTML menu effects!" Or: "Nice font!" I'm there for the information, and I'll shred the site trying to find it, grumbling the whole time. I know I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Of course I'm not wholly insensitive to aesthetics. In fact, I worship CSS wizards who can dress a skeleton of structured information in beautiful clothing. But people really hate looking at, or thinking about, that skeleton. Steve Jobs' demonstration of Safari RSS at Apple's recent developer conference was a great example. At one point, he flipped back and forth between the skeletal (RSS) and clothed (Web) views of a page. It was the least compelling moment of the keynote. Jobs himself sounded unconvinced, and the audience responded with silence.

It'd be great if business websites formed a FOAF-like "web of machine-readable home pages." But I don't expect that'll happen anytime soon. When people look at websites through X-ray glasses, they don't like what they see.

Former URL: http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2004/07/21.html#a1045