In Eric Meyer’s SXSW talk on Emergent Semantics (slides, notes) he referred disparagingly to the design adage, “Don’t pave the cowpaths.” He compared it to the useful practice of seeing where people walk and building sidewalks to match.
But there’s an important distinction between paving the cowpaths and paving the footpaths: people aren’t cows. The cowpath metaphor comes from the common urban history in which rural cowpaths evolved into city streets. As anyone who has ever driven in a city that developed that way knows, the result is picturesque but unusable. The problem is that cows don’t want to go where people want to go, cows don’t navigate the way people navigate, and furthermore cows don’t have the form factor of the vehicles that people want to drive in cities. Paving paths made by people for the use of people is a very different proposition from paving the paths made by cows for use by cars.
This is mostly a quibble about metaphors, but it does have some implications for Meyer’s subject of implementing microformats in XHTML in order to build a “lower-case semantic web” from the bottom up. Once microformats have caught on, will they get us somewhere we still want to go? And more pointedly, does the microformat concept scale up to a system that is coherent and usable once there are a zillion of them?
(By the way, paving real-world footpaths is an idea to be used with care. There are many places where foot traffic completely obliterates the landscape, and if you paved them all you’d have nothing but a parking lot. The solution is to carefully study the footpaths, pave some of them, and plant hedges to protect the grass. Whether that metaphor can be applied to online technologies is an exercise left to the reader.)