s.tag.gering towards

If the idea of faceless hoards organizing the web’s pro/con/fusion in absolutely uncontrolled fashion gets you hot, or bothered, or both, this article on folksonomy by Marieke Guy and Emma Tonkin in the latest issue of D-Lib is worth a look. It’s a nice rundown of behavior on those 900-pound gorillas of social tagging sites, del.icio.us and Flickr.

As they sift through the ways taggers converge or fail to converge, Guy and Tonkin emphasize a core debate: to control or not to control – or, as they put it, “whether it is preferable to have popular (but perhaps not intuitively obvious) tags, or to have a larger spread of relatively uncommon tags, possibly representing more accurate reflections or a wider spread of points of view.”

And here I’m swaying in the breeze. I’m convinced by Clay Shirky when he defends variation in a large-scale tagging environment

[Varying] terms actually encode different things, and the assertion that restricting vocabularies improves signal assumes that that there’s no signal in the difference itself, and no value in protecting the user from too many matches…. If there is no shelf, then even imagining that there is one right way to organize things is an error.

Sure, “film” is not “movie,” “gay” differs from “homosexual,” and God is in the details. But then I look at the stupid ways that tags can differ (misspellings, differing cases, different ways of connecting two words together, various transcoding of alphabets) and, well, you get the picture….

The new D-Lib article makes several interesting observations about tagging behavior that ameliorates Babylonian handwringing, though, such as

  • only 10 to 15 percent of the tags they sampled were single-use tags: taggers do tend to play together
  • social tagging services can and do foster ‘best practices,’ such as listing tags used by others, suggesting synonyms and plural constructions, designating an underscore as the best way to group words
  • ‘tag bundling’ has emerged as a way to create hierarchical folksonomies, a natural extension of compound tags
  • Unicode adoption will tighten up character standardization

Guy & Tonkin strike a nice balance — recognizing the benefit of a natural evolution of tagging, rather than ordained proscription, yet tracking the dangers of incoherency. They underscore that tagging serves two very different functions: personal organization, and collective interchange. The tension between these two functions is what gives this activity its kick.

When I think about how I use these social tagging sites, it seems to me that self-definition and outward discovery are very much at work, sometimes against each other: here is my portfolio of tags (my ‘narrative’, as the alchemical muser might put it), my unique collection: who coincides with me? what are the portfolios of those who share tags with me, anyway? where might they lead me? We read to identify (become more ourselves) even as we’re exploring (losing ourselves). Tagging, along with much networked activity, extends this familiar double-impulse into the social sphere of publication, scrambling the old divisions between authoring and reading.

Understanding optimal conditions for metadata ecologies will take time. Are tags, in the end, most powerful when they’re created by heterogeneous masses? Or are they more useful to a pre-defined group — one that shares a language, an interest, a project, a field of study? And what kind of prompts or suggestions or rules (if any) might further nurture this sudden, populist upsurge of categorizing? Open-ended publication of tags is a great beginning — just do it and see what happens — but, inevitably, harnessing all this new activity is what will help us better read ourselves.

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