May 4, 2007

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Can tags be wrong?: You tag it potato. I tag it tomato. Shall we just call the whole thing off?
More of everything: The Internet is a swamp of lies. The Internet is a haven of knowledge. Yes, it is. That's why it's called "the Internets."
Twittering away: What looks trivial may turn out to be, up close, not so trivial after all.
Book notes: "Everything Is Miscellaneous" launched a couple of days ago. You thought I wasn't going to mention it?


It's a JOHO World After All

I have become the complete narcissist. My book launched on May 1, and in the run up to it, I've become completely self-involved. Everything from the real reason Alberto Gonzales hasn't resigned to those new constellations that spell out my initlals (they're really there! I'm not making this up!) all center on me and my new damn book. It's all about me, baby!

Isn't it?

If you're like to enter the David-centric universe, I'm tracking reviews on a page at the Everything Is Miscellaneous site. Occasionally, though, something non-me related appears on my blog.

Sorry to be so wrapped up in myself. It's probably less fun for me than it is for you...


San Francisco bloggers Miscellaneous meetup

On May 9, 6-8 pm, Dabble and Yahoo's Brickhouse are holding a meetup for bloggers at Brickhouse's offices ((500 3rd St, 5th Floor3223 Mission St.) as part of my book tour. There'll be some (= limited number of) free copies of my book, and I hope they'll be a bunch of bloggers - like you, perhaps! - who want to get together and talk. See you there...

Book Tour

For reasons I only partially understand but fully trust, Times Books has set up a book tour that mainly has me talking within the walls of big companies. But some of the upcoming events are public, including:

Raleigh, NC: May 8, 7pm - Quail Ridge Books (3522 Wade Ave, Ridgewood Shopping Center)

San Francisco: May 9, 6-8pm - Bloggers get-together at Brickhouse (see above)

Sunnyvale, CA: May 11, 11am - Yahoo

Menlo Park, CA : May 15, 7:30pm - Kepler's Books (1010 El Camino Real)

I'll also be on the radio, including on "Tech Nation" on KQED, May 15, 2:30-3:30 PDT.

The Wired-Berkman "Everything Is Miscellaneous" Podcast Series begins

I've done a series of podcast interviews about topics in my book, sponsored by Wired and the Harvard Berkman Center. The first one is now up. It's with Cory Doctorow, writer and digital activist. He's also wicked smart. A few years ago, he published an article called "Metacrap" about why explicit metadata doesn't cut the mustard, a theme echoed in my book. That's what we start out talking about, although it ranges a bit from there.

The series will be posted, about one a week, at the Wired business blog site. Coming up are interviews with:

Next up: Kos! We talk about the politics of letting everyone blog on a site and letting everyone decide whose voice will be loudest.


Feel free to buy my book...

...And you want a fresh new copy, not one of those greasy used ones. Who knows where it's been? No, you want a nice shiny copy of your own. Not for my sake, you understand. It's just for that new copy aroma. Mmmmm, smells likes commas!

You can buy it online of course, but  don't forget your friendly bookstore right around the corner.



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Can tags be wrong?

I was on Christopher Lydon's Radio Open Source program last week (you can hear it here) and Tim Spalding, creator of, asked me an excellent question: Can tags be wrong? What if everyone in a room is an idiot and tags Moby-Dick as "penguin." 

I sputtered for a moment and then came up with the perfect response: "Is there a wrong way to underline a book?" Brilliant! It surrounds a tiny germ of truth with a massive coating of tasty misdirection, like rising to a challenge in one's proof of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem by faking a coughing fit. Tim afterwards sent me a thoughtful and thought-provoking message. So blame him for the following...

Personal tags are not about truth. If I tag a photo of the Bay Bridge in SF as "golden gate" because I think that's what it is, I'm wrong. But, when I go to look for that photo, my tag is still useful to me so long as I'm still wrong about which bridge is which. Of course, I might have tagged it "golden gate" because I'm doing a report on bridges near the Golden Gate Bridge, in which case my tag was true, even though a stranger who is not privy to my mental innards would assume I'm mistaken. But many personal tags aren't primarily about truth at all: If I tag the photo "homesick," "examine closely later " or "write poem about," the value of the tag isn't in its representation of something true about the object. These tags aren't truthy, to use Stephen Colbert's term.

It's a different matter when we go from the private and individual to the public and social. Now we're in the realm of folksonomies, i.e., the topology of tags generated by lots of strangers. At its simplest, a folksonomy reports on which tags are most popular for particular objects, and which tags are most popular over all. It can also notice relationships among the tags — how they cluster. It can also notice trends over time. It can also report on which tags are most popular with particular groups. Folksonomies can get as subtle as our analytic skills allow.

Folksonomies get their value by reflecting the viewpoint of the plurality, not what an authority thinks is or ought to be the viewpoint. Tim's email message provides a couple of examples of how crowds can steer us wrong, or at least get in the way:

I'd love to use the "Classics" tag, but what means Greco-Roman Philology to me means Jane Austen and Charles Dickens to others. And what I know as Christianity is utterly swamped by LibraryThing's enormous evangelical Protestant contingent. "Christian living" is, in the abstract, a topic that interests me. But that's a term of art in evangelical circles, and its tag page is made up of books I'd pay to avoid.

The folksonomy in this case makes tags less useful for those who are outside the bell curve of usage for a particular term. And it's easy to imagine examples that are not just problematic for the minority but are actually offensive: Suppose the primary tag for Ségolène Royal were "hot" or the primary tag for the Pope were "public enemy."

Offensive is one thing, but can a folksonomy be flat-out factually wrong? Suppose the main tag for "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," an anti-Jew forgery, was "history"? While we cannot know what's going on in the heads of all the people who tagged it that way, it seems as straightforward a misclassification as tagging bats as "bird."

I do think it's a little more complex than that, though. If we took a poll about either the "Protocols" or bats and the results showed that the majority of those polled believed "Protocols" is true and bats are birds, we wouldn't say the poll was wrong. We'd say the people were wrong. Likewise, the folksonomy would be a true reflection of the popularity of false beliefs.

But, that's too easy an out. Folksonomies are not just reports. They're also tools. They thus reinforce belief systems, since we believe (rightly) that what most people believe is a (generally) reliable guide to truth. Folksonomies make visible, and thus magnify, the effect of belief systems. Sometimes that's exactly what we don't want to have happen. Crowds are wise, but only in particular circumstances. The book The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki is not a hippie manifesto about sharing the love. It's quite specific about when the aggregated opinions and guesses of crowds do better than individuals. Folksonomies do not meet those criteria. Crowds also do well with the truth when they're not mere crowds but are engaged in some form of back and forth, AKA "conversation." Folksonomies don't generally arise that way either.

Part of the problem is with the very term "folksonomy." It works so well because it's a pun. As such, it implicitly suggests that folksonomies replace taxonomies. But, our aim should not be to replace an obsolete, top-down taxonomy with a better one that's been generated from the bottom up. The main problem with taxonomies is that, no matter how good they are - and many are so good that we'd be fools to discard them totally - they are simply one way of organizing a domain. A folksonomically-developed taxonomy suffers from the same weakness, although it may well be more useful than that which it is replacing. The problem isn't just the source. It's the singleness.

Far better are environments that organize themselves dynamically around our context and project. All the information others have generated enriches the domain, so that the system knows that although most people tag photos of San Francisco "SF," it should also show me the photos tagged "Frisco," and if I'm searching for vacation spots, maybe it'd be useful to show me some Napa vineyards as well. I may want to see what most people mean, but it'd be nice to be shown some new takes on the topic, and it's essential that I can use the folksonomy to browse on demand in my own minority way. (What and do with "interestingness" is itself an interesting example of finding what's, well, interesting but not necessarily at the top of the popularity charts.)

If we divide up our books into fact and fiction piles using a folksonomy that tells us that the "Protocols" is fact, and if Moby-Dick gets put in the "penguin" pile, then the folksonomy is in some meaningful sense false. But if we allow multiple folksonomies (along with traditional taxonomies), the folksonomy becomes not a statement of how the world is ordered but a reflection of the different ways a crowd orders material — some ways wrong, some right, and some just useful. 

Traditional taxonomies gain value by settling ambiguities, at least for purposes of navigation. Folksonomies instead need to reflect the controversy and confusion that make crowds even wiser when they don't agree.


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More of everything

Whatever case you want to make about the Internet, you can make. Want to show that it contains the most wretched ideas and images? There's a whole bunch of sites you can point to. Want to prove that it is the salvation of democracy and rational discourse? Google and ye shall find. Want to show that it's a haven for red-headed sociopaths who raise chihuahuas for their milk? Yup, you can probably find those sites, too.

So now when people complain that on the Internet people flame one another, or they live in echo chambers (and notice that those two claims are mutually exclusive), or that people on the Net encourage the destruction of all morals, I don't disagree. All those things happen. But the full truth is, I believe, that on the Internet there's more of everything. There's more porn, there's more righteousness. There's more anger, there's more support. There are more sites where people gang up on their enemies and more sites where love transgresses its boundaries.

More of everything.

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Twittering away

I've been twittering. I'm not entirely sure why, and I feel too old for it, but I'm finding it fascinating. And more than that.

Twitter and other such sites (e.g., Jaiku) are "microblogs" where you can post very short messages (e.g., 140 characters) and see the scroll of messages posted by your buddies. You can Twitter via the Web site, IM, or SMS on your cell phone.

In general, people seem to post what they're doing at the moment, plus occasional quotes and ideas of interest. So, by definition it should be trivial. But, Twitter is about the intimacy of details. Without it, I'd hear from people maybe once a year, when I run into them at a conference or they send a holiday newsletter. (Actually, I don't get any of those any more. Two explanations: 1. Blogging has obviated them. 2. Nobody likes me. Third explanation: Both of the above.) We then engage in the odd ritual of narrative construction called "catching up." We give the headlines in each of the big areas in our lives. The kids are fine, the job sucks, we botoxed the cat, etc. But with Twitter, you see the day-to-day life of your friends.

A lot of it of course I don't care about. But it turns out that I do like hearing that Paolo Valdemarin, an Italian friend I see every couple of years, is sitting on his porch, drinking wine and watching the sunset. I do like hearing that Jessamyn West, who I unfortunately run into very rarely, is working on a presentation to librarians, which she then shares with her Twitter pals. I do care that BradSucks, a Canadian musician I've only met once, is rehearsing for a live show. This is, to mangle Linda Stone's phrase, continuous partial friendship, and it's a welcome addition to the infrequent, intermittent friendships we're able to manage in the real world.

It helps that the volume of flow is so impossibly high that there's zero expectation that anyone is keeping up. "Hey, dude, why didn't you know that? I like twittered it two days ago?" is just not a reasonable complaint.

I don't know if Twitter or one of its new-and-improved competitors will survive, or what it will become. It's hot at the moment, which usually means that it's not going to be hot soon. But it's a powerful platform for something, and even in its current state, it addresses our desire to fill every interstice with social connections.

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Book notes

My book is launched. The tour is about to begin. I am awaiting something. I don't know what, but I'm anxious about it.

There are a couple of places that do pre-publication reviews. PublishersWeekly liked it pretty much, but thought it wasn't practical enough for a business book. Booklist gave it a good review, finding it "thought-provoking" and "entertaining." (Thank you, Booklist. PublishersWeekly, go to your room and think about what you did.) My publisher has been alerted that a couple of big league outfits have reviews in the works. This makes me happy and also means I won't be able to keep food down until the reviews come out, and possibly ever after.

Barnes and Noble's is featuring the book on the "new non-fiction" table at the front of their stores nationwide for a couple of weeks. That's a big deal. (Thank you, Times Books!)

I'm especially looking forward to whatever bloggery comes out of this. Do you know how different it is to write a book when your readers can talk back? It's thrilling.

So now I wait. And twitter.

LATER: The bloggers are weighing in. Cory Doctorow of gave it a rave: "This is a hell of a book"… an "instant classic." Karen Schneider at the American Library Association site gave it a great review. Ethan Zuckerman compares it to drinking a mojito (which he means in a positive way). Peter Morville finds it "inspiring," even while taking issue with some of it.

I love bloggers.

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Bogus Contest: Misc. Elevator Pitch

Now that my book is actually published (wait, have I mentioned that already?), you'd think I'd know how to answer the question, "So, what's it about?" without the use of Powerpoints and the phrase "But it's actually more interesting than I'm making it sound." Here's the official version of the current Elevator Pitch, which you may actually hear me spontaneously pronounce word for word:

We know how to organize things in the real world, whether it's a store, a front page or your kitchen. No matter whether you arrange things alphabetically or by size, you always follow two basic principles: Everthing has a place, and two things can't go in the same place. But, online, those principles don't hold, so we're inventing new ones. For example, a physical photo has to go in one album. But a digital photo of Uncle Bernie on the beach on his birthday can go in as many digital albums as you want -- trips, relatives, beaches, birthdays, funny sunburns, bad comb-overs... And it's not just photos. The new principles for how we organize ideas, information and knowledge are transforming media, education, politics, science, and business - upsetting the old order and the old authorities.

So, your challenge is to make that half as long and twice as compelling. And this time, I'm even offering a real prize, although it's pretty chintzy: A copy of Everything Is Miscellaneous. Best of all, I will have one of my many assistants personally sign my name to it!


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