The meaning of vcard’s “fn”

Martin McEvoy recently resurrected a thread on the replacement of “fn” by “title” in the hAudio microformat. The main point is that “fn” (formatted name) is a bit cumbersome for a song’s name/title. This offered me the opportunity to give my interpretation of the meaning of “formatted name”, which I will summarize here.

A formatted name is a locale-specific (typically of the locale the name is from) serialization of a structured representation of a person’ name. It is useful for display and print, for instance on the label of an envelope, where conformance to local name ordering practices is desired for politeness reasons.

Now some explanation of why formatted names are important for people’s names.

For those who don’t know, there are different name ordering conventions in different parts of the world. Just as an example, given name first, family name second is common in Western countries, whereas family name first, given name second is common in Eastern countries.

So, computer people who want to store names of persons for different places in the world have to deal with the following problem: they want to be able to distinguish family names from given names and other names (middle, mother’s, etc.) since it helps for searching, for identification and for avoiding duplicate entries, but they don’t want to be impolite either and send a letter with a name formatting that does not comply with the locale of the person.

One solution to this problem could be to identify all the different types of name ordering conventions, for instance, by locale and locale region, then code these rules in some programming language, then keep the information about the locale of the person, or infer it from the country they were born in, or the place they live, or something else, and then compute the formatted name from the database or structured or tokenized representation.

That is obviously a lot of work, and also not completely fail-proof. For instance, a Japanese person living in the U.S. might still want their name to be printed on letters with the last name first. If you add honorific titles, prefixes, suffixes, abbreviated forms, etc. to the problem mix, it is even more work. Usually at this point, what the computer people do is go back to the problem they were addressing (usually not an international name storage problem, but something else like a customer data storage problem for a U.S. bank or an electronic business card problem) and realize that if they spend so much time on each issue (“Why are we doing this again?”), and that no much will come out of their work if they continue on this path (at least no fast enough for the next quarter). This is the exact situation that myself and my IFX colleagues faced a couple years ago, and I’m hypothesizing that this is the same problem that the vCard people faced.

The only easy solution is to store the name of the person in a structured format, but keep a copy of the preferred formatting in a separate field. This is what we did at IFX, and this is what I’m guessing the vCard people did.

All this to say that the meaning of “formatted name” is to me very specific to those names for which there is value in maintaining two representations, one structured and one serialized, because reconstructing one from the other is difficult. To go back to the original thread raised by Martin, and given the above, I don’t think that “fn” should be used for a song’s name.