XML, and What You Can Do

Extensible Markup Language or XML describes the more meaningful features of an electronic document. If you know HTML or XHTML (the stricter sibling of HTML) then XML will look familiar in that they are both markup languages. An even better example is a blog feed, which is actually a more specialized type of XML.

Applications of XML

Each <tag></tag> pair that encloses each set of text in the document came from XML feed specifications agreed upon by its governing working group. But XML is so generic that it can be applied practically anywhere. Just look at how many XML markup languages are out there. These are just some of the diverse applications of XML:

  • Writing. One is Fiction Markup Language, abbreviated as FicML, which happens to be the same abbreviation for another XML schema for fan fiction writers. It seems the first is a lot more active right now (I’m getting lots of 404 errors at ficml.org). FictionBook is an ebook format that is popular with Russians.
  • Math. Writing equations electronically is never fun. MathML attempts to ease the pain, but a fairly lengthy expression like the quadratic formula looks like tag soup when translated to XML. Graphing languages like GraphML are handy for computer scientists too.
  • Music. MusicXML lets you compose concertos from your computer keyboard, but maybe it’s not as inspiring as the traditional notation.

As you may notice, XML may be intimidating to look at and deal with, and in the cases above, it underscores why we write mathematical equations or musical notes the way we do—it makes sense. But when your literature, math, and music cross the digital divide, you’ll want the conveniences of findability and semantics (meaningfulness). Of usability. Hype aside, XML is part of the Web 2.0 revolution—it gave legs, or perhaps nimbler legs, to stuff on the web. A few years ago they were just sitting there, difficult to reach.

What You Can Do

If you want information to become more convenient, (a) realize there’s a conscious effort to herding raw words, equations, and notes; and (b) use it. For (a), it might be a good idea to snoop around web standards workgroups to know what’s going on and help spread the word. I know you writer-types would love to have a website that breezes through books and the rest of the literary world. Digitizing them is difficult enough, but filing them in an electronic library will double that task. More volunteers equals faster results.

For (b), and this is tricky, use what’s out there. I don’t really mean literally coding in XML when you don’t even know how to program. (Though I’ve been using HTML so much I’ve found the HTML Hotkey Blogging tool from Lifehacker utterly useful.) Use XML feeds: get a feed reader, add ’em up, and read ’em like the daily paper. You don’t have to limit yourself to XML; add Arrington or Cashmore or any other Web 2.0 blogger to your feed reader. Try out the latest apps, online or offline. Get a widget, online or offline. Share and upload media. Don’t forget to tag them. Or do whatever verb these companies ask you to do. They will forever change the way you use your computer or the Web, hopefully the way you think.


If you’re still confused about markup languages, don’t check this out. It’ll confuse you more! Oh, and you can read our crash course on XHTML and XML.

4 replies

  1. Haha. Glad you read it, regardless. This isn’t an academic endeavor so don’t you worry about getting a quiz on it! And that’s why there’s a “what you can do part” to it. :)

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