The first thing I looked for after successfully migrating my old blog content to WordPress was some new plugins. The plugin ecosystem for WordPress has always impressed me with it’s diversity and range. The first two plugins I installed have actually changed the way I think a little bit about what it means to have a personal identity on the Web.
My first task was to find a plugin to embed my “Friend of a Friend” (FOAF) profile into my blog pages. FOAF is a Semantic Web standard for describing personal information and social networking links in a way that is open and distributed.
Facebook is a fine system, but they’ve made it clear that the information you post about yourself and your friends is their intellectual property. I don’t begrudge them this – they’ve spent millions of dollars building a system that (for the most part) just works. But the real pain comes when Yet Another Social Networking Site comes on the scene. You sign up to join in on the fun, and immediately start building your social network up again in a different silo, a different walled garden.
The designers of the FOAF standard aimed to provide an open way of defining your social network using the tools of the Semantic Web: URIs and RDF. I hope that some future Facebook or Twitter will import and export a social network graph in this form. In the mean time, we can still build our own individual applications using the FOAF vocabulary. Addmittedly a stupid name, but a very powerful idea.
The wp-rdfa plugin adds support for FOAF to WordPress. It generates a very basic FOAF profile for the blog owner based on your already-defined user profile. This is the case where the Semantic Web shines. RDF and OWL are not going to replace (X)HTML over night – they’re too complex and arcane to be readily adopted by Web designers and developers who code by hand. But Content Management Systems, for example, can be modified to generate Semantic Web representations of the data it manages. Drupal 7 is a great example of this – they implemented RDFa as a standard part of the system.
With a bit of hacking to the plugin, I now include a reference to my (rudimentary) FOAF profile in the pages of this blog. It’s nothing fancy, but I can add additional information as I go, eventually building up a description of my interests, projects, friends, etc. that is independent of Facebook and LinkedIn, and is wholly mine. As more blogging packages add support for FOAF, we can begin to build a semantic distributed social network, with blog posts and comments replacing Newsfeeds and Wall posts.
I’m working on some modifications to the wp-rdfa plugin to make it a little more flexible. The first mod makes linking to an external FOAF file possible. I wanted to be able to put any sort of information into the FOAF file that it allowed without being limited to the profile boxes in WordPress. The second mod will make sure all additional FOAF data generated by the plugin (such as comments on posts) link back to the appropriate parts of the FOAF file.