Stowe Boyd calls it deep structure for twitter, Chris Messina terms it baking in meta into twitter and somewhat jokely picoformats. Call it what ever you like but Microsyntax.org is aiming to deliver structure to our short messages. I say short messages because I think the thing they miss is the fact thats its not just about Twitter. We use short messages in loads of places including Text messages (sms/mms) and other microblogging platforms.
Over the last several months, I have written a great deal about new types of ‘microsyntax’ for Twitter at my Message blog. By microsyntax I mean various ways to embed structured information right into the text of Twitter messages. The most well-known sort of microsyntax are the retweet convention (or ‘RT’) and hashtags (or twitter tags). (I have also referred to this as microstructure, but I believe that microsyntax is perhaps more self-explanatory.)
These microsyntax conventions arose from the user community, and are variably and differently supported by Twitter and the many clients that are in use. Many people don’t remember that the use of ‘@’ to indicate that a message was to be sent to a specific user’s attention (a reply or a mention) is a convention that grew up with the service’s earliest days.
We have some relatively mature conventions — like hashtags (‘#twitter’ or ‘#ruby’, for example) — that have spread into wide use but are not directly supported by Twitter itself, and where different applications may support them in very different ways.
At the other extreme, we have new conventions appearing — like CoTweet’s use of ‘^’ preceding initial of authors in group twitter accounts, my recent suggestion for ‘/’ as syntax to precede or enclose locations (as in ‘/Germany’ or ‘/156 South Park, San Francisco CA/’), or my proposal for subtags (like ‘#sxsw.kathysierra’ or ‘#w2e.PR’) — and these could lead to confusion or conflicts between contending approaches to the same purpose.
As a result of all this activity, and the potential for collective action in these efforts, we are launching a new non-profit, Microsyntax.org, with the purpose of investigating the various ways that individuals and tool vendors are trying to innovate around this sort of microsyntax, trying to define reference use cases that illuminate the ways they may be used or interpreted, and to create a forum where alternative approaches can be discussed and evaluated. We may even get involved in the development of proof-of-concept implementations that can act as reference architectures for microsyntactic extensions to the Twitter grammar emerging in the real time stream.
In the upcoming weeks, I and other contributors will be enumerating all the known microsyntax for Twitter, and exploring the interaction of those which each other and with other, external applications.
This is great but Stowe and Chris are under illusion that publishing a pico format is the end of the game. From Chris's blog post,
If I’ve learned anything from the microformats process, it’s that anyone can invent a schema or a format, but getting adoption is the hard part (and also the most valuable). So, in order to promote adoption, you should always try to model behavior that already exists in the wild, and then work to make the intensions of the behavior more clear, repeatable and memorable.
Most microsyntax efforts fail to follow this process, and as a result, fail in the wild. Efforts that employ the scientific method tend to see more success: hashtags modeled the convention started by IRC channels and Jaiku (Joshua Schachter also used the hash to denote tags in the early days of Delicious); the $ticker convention (from StockTwits) follows how many financial trade publications denote stock symbols. And so on.
So when it comes to proposing new behaviors that don’t yet exist in the wild, I think that the Microsyntax.org project will be an excellent place to convene and host conversations and experiments, many of which will admittedly fail. But at minimum, there will be a record of what’s been tried, what the thinking and goals were, and where, hopefully, some modest successes have been achieved.
Good on these guys for trying to focus efforts, I think there is a tall hill in front of them but even if they can convince some of the applications/service makers to use some of the microsyntaxes that would be great. Of course its got to come from both sides. Look at the L: syntax which came and went, even though twittervision.com was using it.