Social web accessibility: the semantic web and RDFa

The evolution of social media has led to a rapid change in the way we perceive the internet. Two-way communication and mobility across a variety of platforms has meant that far more people, including people with disabilities, are now able to collaborate and communicate online. From the W3C’s perspective, important questions needed to be answered:

  • How can developers be supported on the social Web?
  • What are the challenges that need to be addressed?

The W3C held a two day workshop in January 2009. The workshop was advertised as a “bringing together the world experts on social networking design, management and operation in a neutral and objective environment where the social networking history to date could be examined and discussed, the risks and opportunities analysed and the state of affairs accurately portrayed.”

After considering 72 position papers from 56 organisations, the W3C drew a number of conclusions.

  • The first was the benefit of interoperability and the opening of closed communities;
  • The second point, however, warns of the dangers of making too much personal information public and the third was concerned over how businesses would be able to manage the supply of goods and services within communities.
  • The final point, is particularly relevant, as it addresses the needs of users: “There is need for specific outreach on social network feature/service accessibility and mobility matters to address the disparity between current implementations of social networks and the devices or capabilities of all users of the Web.”

In response to the need to create an accessible social Web, things seems to have been a bit quiet in the past two years. The Social Media Incubator Group finished in September 2010 and many developers are concerned about the relevance of the W3C in this area.

Yet in many ways, the W3C has been preparing for the evolution of the social web since its inception. Given that the social web is representative of the interactions of computers and humans, developers need to cater for how computers talk to each other, how humans talk to each other and how computers and humans interact with each other. The semantic web and the suite of resources and the inclusion of metadata are becoming more important in making sure computers are able to link people together.

The W3C doesn’t need to specifically focus on social media standards, but rather ensure that its web technologies support its growth.  

It’s also important to note that the W3C’s involvement in metadata concepts is only a part of a much bigger picture: the International Standards Organization (ISO) and a variety of other bodies have been working on these concepts for decades and the W3C’s work is only looking at things in a particular area.

A good example though of where the W3C fits in is the rapid increase in use of Resource Description Framework – in –attributes (RDFa), the simplified combination of RDF with XHTML which makes it easier to incorporate metadata.  Facebook have made use of RDFa to make standard webpages have the same functionality as Facebook-specific pages, and Best Buy in the US has introduced RDFa into its entire product catalogue to improve how different customers can leave opinions and find things online. 

For people with disabilities, this work is particularly important, as accessibility and the semantic web go hand in hand: the more information computers can understand the better assistive technology works. The more people can communicate online, the easier it is to overcome barriers such as mobility. The more metadata is used to define objects, the easier it is to find things, to shop, to collaborate and participate.

For developers who have never used RDFa, there’s a great introductory video which also discusses Facebook, Twitter and Google’s use of RDFa on the semantic web website. It discusses how the subject, predicate and objective can be specified in its correct syntax with coding examples. The W3C also has a wealth of information on RDF and associated semantic web standards can find the information on the W3C RDF website. There is also a good RDFa primer available for developers with coding examples. 

In other W3C news, a report was released this week that looks at the use of standards, including accessibility as the web and the TV converge. In the coming months we’ll look at convergence in more detail, and also swing back to more accessibility-specific topics as we check up on the HTML 5 implementation of web browsers now that Internet Explorer 9 has been released, and the upcoming release of the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines 2.0.

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