Addition of foaf:gender to spec

Vocabulary — danbri @ 11:39 pm

The FOAF specification now includes a new (and long anticipated) property, foaf:gender. Like all FOAF properties, ‘gender’ is optional – nobody is required to describe themselves in any more detail than they choose to, and the new text in the spec goes to some lengths to stress this, amongst other concerns. I announced it to the FOAF mailing list (rdfweb-dev) earlier today following editorial discussions in #foaf, our IRC channel.

Typical values for foaf:gender are ‘female’ and ‘male’, which can be added to most FOAF files simply by including an element such as <foaf:gender>male</foaf:gender> inside any foaf:Person element(s) in the document. See the foaf:gender definition for details and accompanying documentation. Feedback on the design and documentation is welcome, either through weblog comments or by email.

The addition of a ‘gender’ property to FOAF is obvious, but also not something to do lightly. I have tried in the documentation to highlight a few issues that users and developers should be aware of. FOAF is often compared to centralised databases such as Six Degrees (the old pre-crash version; the domain name seems to have been recycled) or Friendster. However, the FOAF “data set” (ie. the collection of all Web documents and services which use FOAF vocabulary) is highly distributed, ie. not under central control. FOAF is being put to uses that are literally out of control; there is no “FOAF sysadmin” who can delete, edit or update all FOAF profiles. The data is scattered throughout the Web, under the control of the people who publish it.

Consequently we need to proceed with a certain amount of caution when increasing the expressiveness of FOAF. Adding gender information to FOAF means that whenever someone is looking for a way to describe a person’s gender in an RDF/XML document, there is a simple piece of FOAF markup that will do the job. We can’t control what other information this will be mixed with, whether the information is accurate, or the uses to which it will be put. An obvious application people have been discussing is ‘dating’, and doubtless we’ll see additional vocabularies to accompany FOAF which will go into more detail on that topic than FOAF itself will ever attempt. Other application areas include the (again long-awaited) treatment of ‘family tree’ data within FOAF, where foaf:gender could be used to help define other concepts, like ‘brother’, ‘aunt’, etc.

It’s also worth noting that this addition to FOAF has been defined in general terms so that it is very widely applicable. We can talk about the foaf:gender of things that aren’t human, eg. other animals. This is a good example of unexpected re-use, something often seen with RDF-based data formats such as FOAF. By adding the foaf:gender property, and combining FOAF with other vocabulary such as Wordnet, we could for example use FOAF and RDF to catalogue digital photos and say things like “this is a photo of a female Anteater”. A random example, but one that illustrates the variety of unexpected uses that a single addition to an RDF vocabulary can facilitate. It will be interesting to see how foaf:gender gets used…


  1. I’m tired and hit ‘publish’ too soon! I also meant to mention the fact that within a couple of hours we had Japanese documentation for foaf:gender thanks to Masahide Kanzaki: see and his excellent overview of FOAF in Japanese,
    Thanks :)

    Comment by Dan Brickley — 2003-09-12 @ 12:56 am
  2. The question of the gender of things which are not human reminds me of a David Sedaris’ quote about learning French in _Me Talk Pretty One Day_. “I find it ridiculous to assign a gender to an inanimate object incapable of disrobing and making an occasional fool of itself.”
    While his is probably not the best reasoning upon which to base a spec, it does touch upon gender assignment in non-English languages. This line of thought might be interesting.

    Comment by Amy van der Hiel — 2003-09-12 @ 4:24 pm
  3. Thank you for gender. How about “usage ability level”? There are such a wide range of end-users – from xenophobic beginners – to nerds like us. I suggest at least three distainct levels: beginner, average, advanced.

    Comment by Marc Canter — 2003-09-13 @ 12:34 am
  4. hi Marc. Yes, some way of characterise expertise would definitely be interesting, but I feel we’d need to characterise the domain of expertise somehow rather than just say someone is just plain ‘beginner’. Do you mean ability level w.r.t. the Web, internet stuff etc? With XML/RDF/FOAF/RSS, or with computing in general?
    There was some previous discussion of this on rdfweb-dev in context of Jobs, CVs etc., though I don’t have a pointer handy…

    Comment by Dan Brickley — 2003-09-13 @ 12:42 am
  5. Expertise in being a foaf:gender “male”… I think that’s one of the things foaf:gender “female” people should be saying about me, of course only after having done a thing of rdf:type foaf:rudeThing
    but I might be getting the wrong end of the stick here…

    Comment by Jim Ley — 2003-09-13 @ 5:07 pm
  6. Eric Vitiello’s trust module for FoaF – can be used to describe levels of expertise.
    And for Jim I guess it could be abused to say stuff like:
    <foaf:Person rdf:about=”#jibberJim”>
    <rdfs:subject rdf:resource=”“ />

    Comment by Jim Hughes — 2003-09-15 @ 10:55 am
  7. Based on those last posts it seems the FOAF concept needs to be applied to create a trust relationship with who should be allowed to submit posts to weblogs…

    Comment by Steve — 2003-12-09 @ 11:31 am
  8. I’ve removed all the spam I can find from the site.

    Comment by libby — 2004-03-19 @ 9:09 pm

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