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Archive for December, 2006

My addiction

Slashdot has a thread about a debate over whether Internet abuse counts as a true addiction. (Yet another taxonomic question!) Here’s what I posted in response. Since it was rated 1 (out of 5), you’re not going to stumble across it unless you have your filter set to “Masochist.”

Thank God!

I myself have been showing disturbing signs of being compulsively human. I’ve noticed that I feel an urge I simply cannot control to be social. This really began to scare me when I tried not to talk and found that after a mere seven hours – seven hours! — I said, “Howya doin’?” to the bagger at the supermarket. I didn’t want to. It just slipped out. I couldn’t control myself. Ever since, I’ve given in to my urge – yes, I know, I’m sick – answering the phone when it rings, responding not only to questions but to mere pleasantries, and even initiating conversations when they weren’t strictly required.

It’s a nightmare. And it gets worse.

it’s not just that when I’m with others, I – ugh! – participate in destructive social rituals like caring what people are saying. Even when I’m alone, kind thoughts about other people invade my consciousness. I feel an impulse to wonder what they’re thinking and what matters to them. I try to focus on computing pi or to remember the 1955 Dodgers starting lineup, but I just can’t shut out those images and feelings.

Sometimes – and I’m so ashamed to admit this – I use the Internet to sate these shameful urges.

Admitting all this in public is, I can only hope, the first step towards healing. [Tags: ]

[unc] Social Tagging panel

Alla Zollers notes that we can tell a lot about a community by looking at its tags. E.g., is clearly IT heavy. “Relevance is socially constructed,” she says. I.e., what is relevant changes over time depending on who interacts with it and how they interact it. “Communities form around tags.” [As always, I’m just taking live notes and missing lots.]

Lilly Nguyen thinks of tagging as peer production of knowledge. People think about taggging in terms of production but not use. We have sociological tools that explain some of these but they don’t seek up with Library Information Science. Use of tags is not just about findability and refindability.

I say that I agree that finding and refinding doesn’t cover it. I sometimes tag because I feel like I’m contributing to a tag stream that’s creating knowledge, along with all the human motivations we have for doing things (reputation building, validation, etc.).

Barbara Wildemuth asks why people would use (not create) tags other than finding and refinding. Lilly says she uses tags to discover, to browse, which is different than finding.

Lilly says she worries about tagging overloading us. Someone says we’ll fix it eventually. Lilly says, “So fix it!”

Thomas says that he feeds for social reasons—he knows people pay attention to it—but he searches through Yahoo MyWeb because it has features that work better.

Cliff Lampe wonders where the line is between finding systems and recommendation systems. (Thomas likes

Gary Marchionini points out that people tag also because the act of tagging helps memory, just as taking notes does.

Thomas points out that people tag with terms they’ve most recently interacted with.

Jackson Fox says that we transition terms over time. E.g., after tagging pages as “web design” for a while, he started instead tagging some “graphic design.” So, when he goes to find info about color theory in ten years, if he doesn’t remember he used to call them all “web design,” he’ll miss them. The tools don’t handle this well, he says.

Now Jackson gives his official talk. He says content is very personal. When content creators tagged their own material at (where he works) and found out that others could see those tags, they were livid. Then they calmed down and saw they could connect their content with others. Is it a folksonomy if the taggers are the content creators? How do you avoid spamming?

Thomas: Creator’s tagging doesn’t fit within folksonomy, but it can be a type of seeding.

I say that if a site made the author’s tags visible next to the readers’ tags, it’d stimulate anti-author tags.

Jung Sun Oh says in her talk that we don’t know whether people tag based on their own mental models or based on the terms in the source they’re tagging.

Terrell Russell says he’d like to help people figure out what they know by seeing one another’s tags. If you make the tags and concepts visible and put them in the middle the room at all times, you’ll begin to converge. Thomas says Cameron Marlowe at Yahoo has built something like this. He says that in one instance, people were removing tags about themselves. Nicole Ellison says that in some organizations, you don’t want to be tagged a particular way because it might drive people toward you. Zeynep Tufecki says that people care a lot about their identity; she’s reminded of research about identity in prisons and other places where you don’t have control over that. Jackson says that on the other hand, you can build social capital that way. Amanda Lenhart points to the identity brouhaha at FaceBook as an example of the dangers. Cliffe Lampe suggests pairing it with a reputation system. There’s discussion of whether such a system would result in only positive assessments. Lilly worries about mistakes staying with your forever; Terrell says he’s working on tag decay. Fred Stutzman says this is a social attribution system, but tagging boils things down too much so it’ll be harder to discover what we don’t know about a person. Terrell says that he’s aiming at skills areas. Laura Sheble says it might be helpful to have a way to respond. Also, it’ll be interesting to look at the edge cases, she says. [Tags: ]

[unc] Thomas Vander Wal

Thomas “Father of Folksonomy” Vander Wal is giving a talk at the Univ. of North Carolina symposium on social software. (I gave the opening 15 min talk, as per my previous post.) [As always, I’m paraphrasing, typing quickly, missing stuff, getting things wrong…]

He defines tagging and then quotes Rashmi Sinha: “The beauty of tagging is that it taps into an existing cognitive process without adding much cognitive cost.”

Thomas thinks the Wikipedia article on folksonomy is now much better than it was. [I haven’t seen it, but that means I’ll probably disaree with it.] He defines it as the result of personal free tagging of pages and objects for one’s own retrieval, usually done in a social environment.

The value of folksonomy is “derived from people using their own vocabulary that adds some explicit meaning, which may come from inferred understanding of the information or object.” He says people aren’t caregorizing so much as “placing hooks” so they can re-find stuff.

He explains the folksonomy triad: Object, metadata and identity. (Flickr tagging doesn’t allow identity, he says.) Between object and identity and interest. Between identity and metadata is vocabulary. Between metadata and object is definition. From identity can come community. Between community and identity is definition. Between community and metadata is terminology. Between community and culture is object. [Here’s a pdf that has many of Thomas’ slides in it, including this diagram.]

He stresses the importance of folksonomies and taxonomies working together, the folksonomy recognizing gaps in the taxonomy. There are business tensions, though, around who controls the naming, the known value of building taxonomies versus the unknown value of folksonomies, and consistency vs. emergence.

He says research shows 0.5% of Net users tag things. People tag because their own use and value comes first, it adds perspective (missing metadata, emergent vocabulary, personal descriptors), refindability (aggregation of info, task-based aggregation), and because it states interest. “Every tag is sacred,” he says, perhaps purposefully echoing Monty Python’s Every Sperm Is Sacred.” He warns us against the impulse to “clean up” a folksonomy.

Q: Is anyone tagging with images?
Thomas: Platial.

Q: Any research into the efficiacy of short descriptions vs. tags? Tags vs. narratives. And few tags are verbs…
A: Perhaps it’s driven by how people search, and they search mainly for nouns.

A: Right now, we only have text boxes. When we have transcription, people will talk narratives. [Good point. When writing, tagging is cognitively easy. When speaking, talking in tags takes focus. It’s easier to spew.]

Q: How about spam?
Thomas: Spamming is hard when you have identity.

Q: Who controls? At, they’ll probably strip out the “should be working at Wendy’s” tags and Slashdot strips out the “gay” tag because it’s applied to every article.
A: “Every tag is sacred” is an ideal, but it helps if you have identity.

Q: Tagging for retrieval is difficult since you can’t know how you’re going to want to search for something.

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Tagging K-Fed

Thomas Vander Wal at the UNC social software symposium I’m at just pointed to the way people at Amazon have tagged Kevin Federline. Pretty funny.

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Folksonomy as symbol

In about an hour, I am giving an informal, 20-minute opening talk at the University of North Carolina’s social software conference. I share the floor with Thomas Vander Wal (his blog), the information architect who coined the term “folksonomy,” and someone who knows far more about the topic than I do. So, I’m going to stay as general and meaningless as I can. Here’s what I’m thinking of saying:

Why do we care about folksonomies? They’re easy to minimize as either (a) Just another tool in the kit, and/or (b) A phenomenon that’s been around for a while (e.g., eBay users’ preference for “laptop” over “notebook,” or language itself). But they’re genuinely exciting. Why?

Yes, they’re useful. I don’t want to downplay that, but the interest is out of proportion to their utility.

I think folksonomies have excited us because of what they say. They are symbols. But of what?

First, we’ve embraced folksonomies so fervently also because they stick it to The Man. We don’t need no stinkin’ experts to organize ideas and information! There is, of course, inefficiency built into expert-based taxonomies because they have to choose one way of ordering, and that one way is necessarily infested with personal, class, and cultural biases. As Clay Shirky says, “Metadata is worldview.” But beyond the inefficiency, simpy having someone else have the authority to say “It shall be filed thus” is a statement of political authority. Even when the experts do a good job—as they usually do, because they’re experts—it is still an implicit statement that someone else’s way of thinking is better than yours.

In the face of this, folksonomy says not just that we each have our own way, but that something like ours emerges from it. Folksonomies are proof of the power of emergence. Emergence is a fascinating phenomenon because it explains complexity through intrinsic simplicity. E.g., termites build complex towers by following rules so simple that they fit in a termite’s brain. But there is also a political side to our interest in emergence, beyond its explanatory power. Emergence is hope. It says (or we take it as saying) that left to ourselves, without extrinsic structuring or regulation or governance, we will be magnificent. This is beyond the hope implicit in democracy, that says a group will be able to live together if all are given equal power. We won’t just live together, but something far beyond the capabilities of any of us will emerge. Simply by being together, cathedrals will emerge.

Folksonomies also embrace excess. Publishing and broadcasting by their nature require us to trim the fat from our world. That’s how those systems survive—a publisher that published everything would go out of business on day one. Folksonomies, on the other hand, promise us that we will manage even if we include everything. In fact, folksonomies do better when there are massive numbers of tags. (They also are most useful when they remain diverse. A folksonomy that creates absolute momentum around a single tag, so that over time everyone uses only that tag, is not just non-optimal, it’s dangerous…a “tyranny of the majority.”)

Finally, in embracing tagging and folksonomies we’re rejecting the essentialism our Western tradition began with. Essentialism says that of all the ways of understanding a thing, one is its real way. This makes intuitive sense to us, because we recognize that using a hammer as a doorstop is an oddball use of a hammer; it remains first and foremost something we use for hammering. But essentialism is expensive to maintain. Its metaphysics are convoluted and unbelievable. It inhibits thought. It reflects cultural hegemony. It is unenforceable. And it alienates meaning, putting it into the world rather than among us where it belongs. Folksonomy returns meaning to us, but makes it larger than any one of us. We shouldn’t need folksonomy to do this; language itself should be proof enough. But essentialism has been such a powerful force that we do need folksonomy to kick it in its teeth one more time.

Essentialism includes not just the essences but also their arrangement, their ordering. Folksonomy makes that, too, ours…although, as anything more than a reflection of how we’ve joined and disjoined meaning, it makes me nervous. Beyond the tyranny of the majority, folksonomizing meaning removes the poetry of essentialism, replacing it with statistical averaging.

But folksonomy is not, will not, and should not be our only way of ordering the world. And that’s part of folksonomy’s symbolism as well. Or at least I hope so.

I wish I hadn’d written this post in such a hurry :(

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Ethanz on Cass Sunstein

Ethan Zuckerman has a brilliant review and consideration of Cass Sunstein’s Infotopia, a book I have not read but now look forward to even more. Sunstein’s previous book,, gained notoriety for arguing that the Net tends to polarize opinions. (I am way over-simplifying.) Infotopia takes a closer look at the economy of knowledge on the Web. Sounds terrific. I wish I had been able to include it in what I say about in Everything Is Miscellaneous…all part of the seven months of regret between when an author turns in a book and when it is available in print. [Tags: ]

Web of Ideas: Being and Tags

On Monday, I’m trying out a talk I’ll be giving at the U of North Carolina a few days later. The talk is called, for now, in a doomed attempt to be slightly light-hearted about it, “Being and Tags. Here are the five sections (not counting the zero-based prologue):

0. Three orders of order
1. Tiny tags
2. Are taxonomies real?
3. Can tags be wrong?
4. The miscellany beneath
5. Tagging meaning

The section that particularly worries me is #2—Perhaps you’ve heard that there is no one true taxonomy?— mainly because I think it argues against a position no one really holds. But I can’t tell any more.

I’m also worried about the presentation style. I’m trying to be more precise than usual, so I’ve written out a talk, tightly integrated with Powerpoint—yes, Powerpoint, dammit!—with tons of animations. While I carefully prepare presentations, I never read them from a script. Except for this one.

The whole thing is headed for disaster.

Although the Monday night talk started out as one in my Web of Ideas discussion series, it’s been assimilated into the Harvard-Yale Cyber Scholars series. So, at 6pm you can here Yale’s Shyam Balganesh talking about “Social Costs of Property Rights in Broadcast.” I’m on at 7pm. We’re serving Indian food. It’s open to everyone. [map] [Tags: ]

Whither Information Architecture?

Peter Morville (author of Ambient Findability) wonders out loud about the future of Information Architecture as a discipline, as well as about the role of IAs. Then a bunch of smart people comment[Tags: ]

Craig Swanson’s notebook

Craig Swanson and I knew each other a bit when we both worked for Interleaf in the late ’80s and early ’90s. You wouldn’t have guessed from his work self that he’s an artist, cartoonist and humorist, but you wouldn’t have been shocked to find out, either.

I’ve enjoyed keeping up with him a bit over the years by dipping into his posted works. Now he’s posted a brain-crawl in the form of online notebooks. In addition to his cartoons, many of which are nicely drawn invocations of little puns, you don’t want to miss his etch-a-sketch portrait.

Naturally, I appreciate his careful over-taxonomizing of the notebook’s contents… [Tags: ]

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