Archive for the 'Search' Category

Clay Shirky on Categories and Time

Some time ago I commented on the value of folksonomies, and I basically (still) think that tagging can be as valuable as ‘scientific’ categorization schemes such as the Dewey Decimal Classification System.

In the meantime, however, I’ve come across this truly great Clay Shirky clip from 2005. It’s a conference talk on What Time Does to Categories, and one of his conclusions is that user generated indexes like folksonomies may actually prove more durable than its ‘scientific’ predecessors.

Here’s why:


Reader, meet author

-and eventually you might find yourself. Tagging content is a way of handling information in a search context. Therefore folksonomies tell us how readers gather information on the internet, rather than how it should be retrieved. Still, that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful in helping others find what they are looking for.

Recently there was some debate going on between professor Elaine Peterson and David Weinberger.

In the article Beneath the Metadata professor Peterson claimed that folksonomies are overestimated, because they generally fail to comply with the standards of library science. According to Peterson, the problem with people tagging content is that (unlike, apparently, Peterson and other professionals) they don’t grasp the “author’s intent”.

And this problem, again according to Peterson, seems to be rooted in some sort of dangerous philosophical relativism -a relativism particularly apparent in David Weinberger’s article Tagging and Why it Matters. She especially reacts to the following statement:

“When it comes to searching, what a work means to a searcher is far more important than the author’s intentions.”

To Elaine Peterson this sums up the problem with folksonomies: Because individual people tag content in a specific search context, tags tend to end up having idiosyncratic meanings, and are thus unable to “produce an efficient index”.

But let’s stop for a while. Isn’t it possible that the idea of “an efficient index” may well vary from individual users searching for content to -say- librarians classifying books according to general rules? Of course they do.

In fact, because of the search context in which folksonomies arise, they are much better described as indexes of discoveries made by individual users in the process of searching for content. They’re not made by scientists objectively describing the universe. And because they are the product of search, Elaine Peterson is wrong in presupposing a “folksonomic classification scheme”. However, to her, this lack of a classification scheme like that of Aristotle’s Categories, is, ultimately, what renders folksonomies less useful than the controlled vocabularies of ordinary taxonomies.

But even if folksonomies would seem to be somewhat evasive when it comes to describing them in terms of the Aristotelian Categories I don’t think Artistotle is at all silent on the matter. For all I know Aristotle seemed to regard searching for arguments as part of rhetoric, and, more specifically, part of what is known as “invention” (latin: inventio). So, since the process of finding arguments is described well in the Rhetoric, I wouldn’t hesitate to call even folksonomies “Aristotelian”. (BTW, doesn’t this illustrate rather well why we should immediately stop pretending that “Aristotelian” and “scientific” is the same thing?).

But are folksonomies any good, then? Well, I think they are, because nobody (apart, perhaps, from Elaine Peterson) is expecting them to be anything remotely like hardcore taxonomies. We don’t expect consistency from folksonomies and therefore in many cases we do actually find what we are looking for.

In other words: Even though folksonomies arise as the result of people searching for content, that still doesn’t mean that they aren’t useful in helping others finding what they’re looking for. It is in fact often, as Weinberger says, “good enough”.

At the very least folksonomies tell us something about how people are handling content on the internet, and this is an interesting usability question that should not be ignored.

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