The challenges with structured blogging

One will have to look pretty hard to find someone to disagree with the concept of structured blogging. An era dominated by Web services and APIs has taught us all that making your content open and accessible to everyone, including machines can unlock tremendous potential for the applications you build. But my problem with “structured blogging” is not with the concept; it lies with the challenges associated with adoption. I spoke with Mark Canter a great deal about these challenges and he knows that I am sincerely behind his structured blogging endeavor. It is because I had such a good talk with him that I don't feel at all awkward in publishing the things I spoke with him about. In Mark Canter’s announcement at the Syndicate conference in San Francisco a number of representatives from various companies stood up to voice their support for the initiative. But there was a group of companies that was noticeably absent: virtually all the blogging software providers. So why was Six Apart, Yahoo, Google and others from the blogging industry not standing up on stage with Mark?
The answer to that question is multi-faceted, especially considering what I said earlier: that one will have to look pretty hard to find someone who does not agree with the idea behind Mark’s initiative. In listening to Mark evangelize structured blogging, here are some of the questions and concerns that came to mind that may hinder adoption, and why I believe blogging software providers are not eagerly jumping on the structured blogging band wagon. 1) The goal is to reduce friction, not create it In Mark’s structured blogging announcement he asked a very reasonable question, “will people take the time to fill out a much more lengthy form about a movie review, or restaurant?” And his answer, “yes,” is technically correct. Some will, but most won’t because the more complex form introduces too much impedance into the creative process. I have seen usability studies that have shown how complex forms can overwhelm, and intimidate users. And if complexity breeds anxiety, then certainly complexity will also impact the adoption rate of blogging into the mainstream. But even for seasoned bloggers, most want to blog and to be done with it because they don’t have the luxury of time to jump through hoops in order to commit their thoughts to the Web. 2) Blogs already have all the structure they need To keep things simple blogging tools have evolved very similarly: almost all have a simple text area into which a user types text. This text in turn is published to their blog. Tools have never needed to impose a structure upon the text people enter because the text in and of itself is sufficient to communicate what the post is about. Furthermore, all the formalized structure needed by blogging software today is already represented by existing protocols like Atom and RSS. If Mark wants to recruit companies like Six Apart, Yahoo, Google and others to not only lend their voice of support, but to also release structured blogging implementations, then he has a lot of work to do. A more reasonable strategy to get these companies to adopt structured blogging would be to get those that supply them with content to adopt structured blogging standards. And I am not talking about their users. A growing percentage of their content is coming directly from Amazon, eBay and other content providers that produce or distribute the things that their communities are writing about. In other words, the quickest way to get structured blogging adopted into the mainstream is not to recruit the blogging service providers directly, but to recruit the companies that already possess well defined and highly structured data, like Amazon, eBay, del.icio.us and Flickr. In this way it is not about structured blogging at all. Blogging is merely one example of how this technology could manifest itself. Instead, it is about structured content. It seems reasonable that by having companies like Amazon, eBay, Flickr et al create a standard from the structures already inherent in their data and schemas they have already made public via an API, then it would be relatively easy for blogging companies to include those schemas in their posts, feeds and APIs as well. However, before companies will whole-heartedly jump on board with the structured blogging movement, I think it is important to address developer and technology concerns as well. So far, all of the conversations I have participated in regarded structured blogging have been largely in the context of “microformats.” And as interesting as I think microformats are, truth be told, I don’t care for them. To me they are too limiting in regards to how I can style microformatted content. Furthermore, the idea of having to commit to memory yet another syntax that layers on top of all the HTML, CSS and Javascript that I already find difficult to remember is often completely unappealing. So until someone can demonstrate (i.e. an implementation) to me a compelling advantage in using microformats then I sincerely doubt I will stop what I am currently doing. Contrary to what one might assume, from all the implementations I have seen microformats actually make things harder for parsers. Take for example the demo that Mark gave in his announcement in which he showed an RSS feed that contained structured blogging content embedded the post body in form of a microformat. If you looked carefully, you would have seen that the post body was encapsulated in a CDATA block making its content completely opaque to XML parsers… which kind of defeats the technical advantage of the imposed structure in the first place doesn’t it? And this behavior is not easily overcome until tools start generating 100% XHTML content, which seems highly unlikely given how few people and services are doing that today. Anyway, see how easy it is to divert a conversation about structured blogging into one about microformats? The conversation needs to stay focused on how can we as an industry can increase the structure in whatever form it takes around the content being created on the web. And from a technologist’s point of view I think the conversations taking place around structured blogging would be better served by centering them first and foremost on the standards that have already been widely adopted by the industry (e.g. Atom and RSS). By so doing you can quickly cut through many technical objections that technologists have by minimizing the amount of invention necessary to get the standard adopted. Despite all these concerns and feedback to the structured blogging consortium, structured blogging is definitely something Six Apart can get behind. And eventually it will because not only is the right thing to do, but also because one of Six Apart’s core values to customers will always be its openness. A more open world where content moves easily and freely between systems can only result in increased innovation, and richer application and user experiences on the Internet.

2 Comments

Structured blogging? I guess, my immediate reaction is that these two words are diametrically opposed to each other. Blogging is the most unstrcutured form of activity that I've ever come across, because it truly takes into account the personality of the person blogging.

Yes, it is nice to have a unified API that makes it easy to grab contents from Amazon and similiar services. But these are just tools to get the raw content that you then massage into a form that works best for you on your blog.

The key question is how do we structure content. To date, it has been a specialist activity carried out by professional taxonomists and librarians, and even amongst the experts it is recognised that structuring content is a social construction. The aim of the project that we have just started at supertaggers is to develop ways of enabling structured blogging which people do as part of their social interaction manners and protocols.

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  • The key question is how do we structure content. To date, it has been a specialist activity carried out by professional taxonomists and librarians, and even amongst the experts it is recognised that structuring content i...

  • Structured blogging? I guess, my immediate reaction is that these two words are diametrically opposed to each other. Blogging is the most unstrcutured form of activity that I've ever come across, because it truly takes...

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