What are microformats?
The current definition on the home page says:
Designed for humans first and machines second, microformats are a set of simple, open data formats built upon existing and widely adopted standards.
originally written by Dan Cederholm with help from Tantek Çelik for the launch of microformats.org on June 20th, 2005.
From The Mailing List
Microformats are simple conventions for embedding semantics in HTML to enable decentralized development.
from someone on the microformats-discuss mailing list. Please link/cite if you know the origin of this.
More Specifically From The Mailing List
More precisely, microformats can be defined as:
simple conventions for embedding semantic markup for a specific problem domain in human-readable (X)HTML/XML documents, Atom/RSS feeds, and "plain" XML that normalize existing content usage patterns using brief, descriptive class names often based on existing interoperable standards to enable decentralized development of resources, tools, and services
from someone(s) on the microformats-discuss mailing list. Please link/cite if you know the origin of this.
(I'm pretty sure Ernie kicked off this particular definition, and I think helped a little, but I don't remember the specifics. -Tantek)
Microformats are simple codes that you can use to identity specific kinds of data, like people or events, in your webpages.
Microformats are the way to publish and share information on the web with higher fidelity.
For example, if a company wanted their contact information to be easily found and shared, they would publish it with hCard. Similarly if an organization is planning a series of events and wants more people to know about them and add them to their calendars, then they would publish their events listing with hCalendar. For advocacy groups, whenever they take a position on some political leader, some piece of legislation etc., if they wanted their evaluations/reviews/ratings of those people/laws to be more easily found and passed around, they would publish such opinions with hReview. For all of these, to make it easier, publishers can use tools and services that support microformats.
The key here is that microformats are simple/easy enough that the any organizations own web authors/designers can easily add them in themselves. Adding microformats is easier than publishing an RSS feed for example. You don't have to be a programmer. Anyone with decent (X)HTML+CSS authoring/writing skills can use microformats. Pretty much anyone who is literate can be taught how to author HTML+CSS, and thus microformats makes use of very widely available skill sets.
From an IRC conversation 2006-06-06 which helped "knowprose" grok microformats. Update 2006-06-07: knowprose's blog post Making Sense of Microformats: Have Data, Will Find It.
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