Facebook has quietly added support for Microformats to its “Download Your Information” feature, it appears. The addition provides developers with a way to parse the profile information, posts, photos and videos contained in a Facebook user’s account. Although the change doesn’t have a direct impact on what a mainstream user can do with their Facebook data – you still can’t export your Facebook contact list, for example – it’s an important step for Facebook to make in terms of loosening its formerly tight control over user data.
If case you’re unfamiliar, “Download Your Information” is a relatively new Facebook feature, that, upon request, bundles your personal data in a large zip file and makes it available for download from Facebook’s “Account Settings“ page.
However, there is not much that you, as a user, can do with the data, beyond looking through HTML webpages included in the download. If anything, the feature serves more as a backup of your data than a way to import data into other programs. The zip file does not include a list of your Facebook friends and email addresses, for example, or a collection of photos that you can import into another photo-sharing website.
It’s data, but it’s essentially useless.
Now, that’s changing.
While the term “Microformats” leaves average consumers scratching their heads, it greatly expands the possibilities for developers looking to leverage Facebook data in new ways.
Microformats, which provide a lightweight way to provide interoperable meaning to HTML documents, are now being used to mark up the exported data. Specifically, Facebook is using the formats hAtom, hMedia and hCard.
hAtom is used in marking up wall posts and comments, hMedia designates photos and videos and hCard is used to mark up your profile data and friend’s list.
Unfortunately, it’s not all good news. The hCards are “close to useless,” he says, providing just your name (e.g. “Sarah Perez”), and no URL (e.g. facebook.com/sarahperez), let alone a phone number or email address.
In comparison, on Google Takeout, the search giant’s own data exporting feature (which incidentally just expanded its offerings yesterday), hCards provide your name, your profile URL and your email. In addition, Google also provides vCards for direct importing into another email program or contacts organizer.
Facebook’s implementation of hAtom is a little better – the wall posts now include permalinks and published dates, as well as hCards for the post’s author. But again, Google’s hCards, as noted above, are much richer.
Google also does a better job at distinguishing a post’s title from its content, says Marks, while Facebook just says the content is the title.
The final Microformat, hMedia, marks up your photos and videos, providing titles, timestamps, comments and album name. It also marks up each album so you can extract the photos, the time posted and comments.
As for what this change means for developers, it’s simple: it’s now much easier to access a user’s Facebook data…outside of Facebook and its APIs (application programming interfaces). That means that application developers, especially those focused on personal data like lockerproject.com or status.net, will have an easier way to access data in a format that’s more consistent with the rest of the Web and the services that live there. Twitter, Blogger and WordPress all use Microformats, for example.
Now Facebook does too.
As for Marks, he’s more philosophical about the importance of the change, and quotes Ian Hickson (2007), to explain his sentiment:
“I decided that for the sake of our future generations we should document exactly how to process today’s documents, so that when they look back, they can still reimplement HTML browsers and get our data back.”
Facebook says it implemented the Microformats last month, but has not made a public announcement yet.