In the past week a couple of smart friends posted on dating and preferences, and publicly at that. A lot of what they said resonated, and it was more impressive that they did so on their own site (or at least subdomain) instead of (or in addition to) a (semi-)walled garden like Facebook or a nerdy dating site like OkCupid.
It was both inspirational and made me wonder about what could be done to further empower independents to share, discover, and federate such preferences and profile information, in order to find like-minded or compatible individuals in a decentralized and open manner, rather than depending on any one particular centralized site.
Existing open web standards such as microformats (hCard, XFN), ActivityStreams, and Portable Contacts either lack dating-specific details, or are backend/programmer-centric JSON (nevermind slowly dying XML variants), too high a barrier for the long tail of indie web publishers (not to mention saddled with the disadvantages of DRY violations and invisible sidefiles/APIs). If you want to scale to billions of diverse pages, simple additions to HTML that markup visible content are what is necessary.
That being said, the best way to start exploring the creation of (or extensions to) formats and schema is to research previous efforts (sites, user interfaces, and other formats, no matter the syntax), and start experimenting, with real data, on the public web. Here are a few aspects to get started, based on some of the settings in Facebook's Edit Profile pages.
- gender. This one's a recent hot topic, and Sarah's excellent post provides a good summary. Suffice it to say I'm optimistic that based on extensive research we have a solution (likely to be incorporated into vCard4 and an update to hCard) for representing "gender" in ways people prefer to express it, rather than oversimplifying for programmer convenience.
- interested in. This is the counterpart to declaring your own gender, that of indicating the gender(s) that you may be interested in. Current sites seem to restrict this to a pair of checkboxes at best (for indicating male and/or female interest). However, this property, like "gender", seems a bit more humanly complex than a pair of binary checkboxes for all the same reasons. More research of real-world examples and sites is needed.
- looking for. People are looking for different kinds of relationships, and this is also an area of human complexity that requires additional research.
- relationship status. Facebook has a whole separate page for editing relationship status. While XFN has been quite a success in terms of expressing relationships with others on the web (mostly through numerous sites supporting XFN friends lists), it's got a few holes in terms of expressing relationship status, including perhaps most importantly (in terms of dating), explicitly self-labeling as single. In any case, ways of expressing and describing relationship status also deserves more research.
The flip side of such editing interfaces is how the information is displayed. Facebook has an "Info" tab, as well as an "Information" box on profiles that displays, among other things, the following:
- Networks - organizational affiliations
- Relationship Status - needs research, as noted
- Children - XFN handles this
- Siblings - XFN handles this as well
- Birthday - hCard has a "bday" property
- Current City - hCard's "locality" is sufficient
- Political Views - people seem to use this as a free-form field
- Religious Views - also treated as free-form
- Website - XFN's rel="me" handles this
I know numerous people who have their own sites, blogs, etc. typically with a brief description of themselves. Some even include information like their current city. I recently added a brief "Hello" box to the top of my sidebar, as well as rearranged my "Elsewhere" box to be right below it. Perhaps it's time to start experimenting with adding something similar to Facebook's "Information" box as well to see how that fits-in on a personal site.
The elephant in the room is of course privacy. There are far more people who prefer to keep a lot (most?) of this information private, or at least apparently private either through preferences on social network sites, or through the use of aliases and pseudonyms. In practice I would expect that any formats we figure out for sharing this information would need to be paired with some sort of privacy / limited access to work for most people.
However, given that there are some, like Tara and Jessica, that are ok with publishing preferences publicly, perhaps if more of us do decide to experiment with publishing this information publicly we can learn enough to make progress.
And with that, here is my encouragement: check out the research I've linked to above, add more real-world examples (social network sites, dating sites, personal sites), and consider publishing an "Information" box on your own site with whatever aspects of the above that you feel comfortable with. I'm working on doing the same.