I had a wonderful Indian dinner last night with a collection of notables including David Weinberger, Cory Doctorow and a cast of BBC employees. At some stage in the evening I was talking to the ubiquitous Tom Coates about factors in the adoption and success of social networking technologies. He suggested that for a technology or system to be successful it must provide an immediate payback and benefit for three participants:-
- The end user
- The community
- The company or organisation that runs the system
If we look at last.fm, del.ico.us, flickr and a host of others we can clearly see that they fulfill a basic need and provide an immediate payback for the end users because even without the social network, they let you track your music listening, bookmarks and provide an easy way to post photos on the web. All three systems then derive added value from the fact that lots of people are using them and feed this back into the end users behaviour. Finally, and inevitably, the organization gets benefit from high usage. Although like all internet systems, success has a cost. I'm sure you can apply the same sort of analysis to the growth of Tags on blogs and Technorati or the growth of Skype.

What I'm interested in here is whether the same thing applies to new standards. If we look back at RSS. It appeared fully formed from the heads of Netscape and Dave Winer. Simultaneously with the standard appearing there were both tools for generating RSS and tools for reading it. Atom was the same; really not long after the standard was first proposed we had support for it in several programming toolkits as well as from Movable Type and Blogger. If we go back to the early RFCs there was a very tight link between the appearance of the RFC and the appearance of toolkits and applications that actually used them.

So I think it's fair to say that Standards need reference implementations to succeed and that, in my famous quote "Standards without implementation are just academic wanking"!

But for a standard to succeed, we need more. We actually need adoption as well. So the big question is how do we engage the early adopters and get them to actually use it. This is usually seen as being a political issue. The trick is to get one of the bigger players to support it. Which then means wining and dining key individuals within those players, getting speaking engagements at conferences, making noise on mailing lists and blogs and all the other evangelist activities.

Now even if you do all that, you still can't get the standard off first base if people don't actually use it. And at that point, I think we're back to the question of immediate payback for the three layers of participant. End user, community and system owner/provider.

And so finally I get to the point of this whole post. There are a whole lot of metadata standards that many of us feel ought to exist and buoyed up by the success of RSS we think it should be easy to get them going. And a lot of these fall under the heading of microformats. eg
- A structured "About me" page in common blogging software that provides a Personal Identity Server.
- A structured way of showing my friends and their presence on my personal website
- Open Reviews. For reviews placed on a personal site rather than IMDB or Amazon
- Open Listings. A way for me to post my offered/wanted listings on my website instead of Craigslist
- Open Events. A Web wide shared calendar based on my own public calendar on my website
- Publisher driven advertising. Anyone can post an advert and aggregators then serve them. Publishers can pick and choose which ones they show.
- Attention. A more formal way to say, right now I'm listening to this, reading that, viewing this TV program, learning about this, working on that, talking on Skype to them, participating in this IRC channel where I last posted 3 hours ago.
- Location. I'm currently in Geneva airport in transit to Heathrow and then San Diego for Etech 06. Or the Starbucks in Kings Road.

Now there's at least some work being done on creating standards and providing transports and displays for all of these. But the catch is not only are they missing implementations at the toolkit level, but they're also missing applications that actually do something useful with them. But much much worse, for quite a few of them there's no obvious immediate payback for any of the end user, community or a system or application owner. To take just one example of OpenReviews; why should I make the effort to write a review and post it on my website. And especially if there the associated systems don't exist to pick them up, aggregate them and get the extra link love of people reading them elsewhere and clicking back to me.

I'm especially concerned here about the Personal Identity Server. This really *should* exist. But it's dead boring and the payback for the user is minimal. At least initially.

So I'm not really doing my usual thing of "Bitching and Moaning before eventually Agreeing". This is more a call to arms for people who are doing the work to define standards to enable these sorts of opportunities described above. Even if you write a good well documented standard, and even if you build reference tools to use the standard, and even if you do the politics to get the standards adopted in systems, it still won't come to anything if you don't provide a compelling reason to adopt it to the end user, the community and to commercial or non-commercial system owners.

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[ 14-Jun-05 1:36pm ] [ , ]