The Tao of Folksonomy

A recent posting reveals my efforts to understand how volunteers are using tags to categorize photos, blog posts, etcetera, a concept known as folksonomy. This week I attended a dinner where members of the tagnoscenti — including Tantek Celik and Mary Hodder — discussed the system’s shortcomings, notably fake-tagging to drive traffic to sites, and the inevitable confusion that results when volunteers tag the same things in different ways. I am obviously condensing a lengthy dialogue, much of which went over my head, but I do recall a suggestion that a reputation system might add clout to thoughtful taggers and reduce the noise. I’m not sure whether that was deemed unworkable or unwise because by that time everybody was antsy to go home and there was a lot of shuffling of chairs. Mary did mention she was discussing these issues with Marc Canter (of Ourmedia) in something called Open Topics which I briefly visited but bounced off as it is way too technical for me. Afterwards, dinner host Jeff Ubois emailed his customary who-was-there, what-was-said, follow up, in which he included links to further the conversation. They directed me to a lengthy and illuminating essay in which Shelley Powers (aka Burningbird) reviewed much of the discussion about tags, their plusses, minuses and alternatives. To make a long essay short, Burningbird seems to thinks that, when it comes to tags, we get what we pay for. In her own words: “I grant that tags (Technorati, Flickr, and others) and the other tools of folksonomies are better than having nothing at all; but is there a possibility that they are also worse than having nothing at all?” She softens the critique by adding: “I don’t want to denigrate Technorati’s efforts with this, because I feel in the end Technorati is going to play a major role in our semantic efforts. Still, no matter how many tricks you play with something like tags, you can only pull out as much –meaning’ as you put into them.” The essay alludes to some alternatives or supplementary systems, which frankly require more thought power and technical insight than I can muster, perhaps ever and most certainly now when I have to get on with life. But as the liberal arts guy eavesdropping on a technical discussion, it strikes me that generally speaking we do not deploy what might be called the best system for anything. For instance, how many people are learning Esperanto ? Instead we throw stuff out there. The stuff that gets momentum — whether good, bad or indifferent — becomes the main thrust. We then hasten to patch it up as it rolls along, and hope we fix it before it falls apart. One more thought. My wife got me a can filled with inspiration sayings that come with peel-off backs. I stick a new one on my bathroom mirror each day (those says help prevent me from using the razor in a manner that might be harmful to myself). One of my thought du jour read: The world is ruled by letting things take their course. It was attributed to Lao Tzu. There seems to be a time honored tradition of just muddling along.

Tom Abate
Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media