This FOAF Thing
Nicholas Chase asks pointedly of me, “[w]hat is this FOAF thing?” I am not one to back down from an inquiry from Nicholas Chase, in part because I’m a wordy bastard who’ll use any excuse to write, and in part because I do not know Nicholas Chase at all, and he very well could do me bodily harm if I don’t answer his question. So, threatened and uneasy, I reply, not just to the fearsome Mr. Chase but to any of my readers of varying technical aptitude and interest who may wonder what the hell I’m on about.
FOAF, which stands for Friend Of A Friend, is in technical terms a Resource Description Framework (RDF) namespace, or vocabulary, for describing people and their relationships to other people. Like all RDF data, FOAF data is exchanged in XML, an arbitrary markup language (think HTML, only you can essentially make up tags for types of information you deem important). FOAF is still in its formative stages, but already is exceptionally usable for its intended purpose (see below). I personally find it far more “readable” than other RDF vocabularies, as much as any structured data schema intended for automation can be readable.
Those are the very basics, and the FOAF link above in turn links to a plethora of useful information about the namespace. What’s more interesting is FOAF’s use, and to illustrate that I employ a metaphor. FOAF data (a FOAF file, for argument’s sake) is like a business card, but rather than displaying exclusively your personal information (name, phone number, address, web site, etc.) it references a number of designated friends as well. This reference is not all available information about your friends, but merely a means to get their business card, and in turn the associated information and references to their friends.
It doesn’t take much further pondering to realize that a few of these “hyper business cards” in your possession would put social connections with a large group of people at your fingertips, much like this Friendster I’ve been yakking about. While FOAF as means for exploring social networks may not be as easy to use as a closed and centralized system like Friendster, the fact that it’s open, public, and above all just a data format means that developers can build it into all kinds of applications, and users in turn can exploit its advantages in all kinds of ways. Indeed, in the process of planning Sexxi architecture we searched for a data format that would easily allow us to “spider” through the list of web publications that a user reads,then the list of publications the authors of those publications read, and so forth, looking for relevant data. FOAF is clearly the best format for this task, and its all the more appealing now that Six Apart’s TypePad hosted blogging service will automatically generate FOAF files for all its users. I expect FOAF to become, much like my metaphor, a sort of business card in online communities, informing others not just who you are and how to contact you, but who you know and/or read.
There’s a lot of potential in FOAF, and a lot of application to Sexxi, so that’s why I’m on about it so much. I hope that explanation was satisfactory. Don’t hurt me, Nicholas Chase. I do not wish to know the destructive power of this “chaos magnet” you claim to wield.