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Emanuele Quintarelli suggests that we go further than Peter Van Dijck‘s mefeedia that provides a few broad facets by which tags can be organized. Why not create a wiki at which users can create a much more detailed, hierarchical taxonomy that would know, for example, that Venice is not just a place but that it’s a place in Italy (as well as a place in the US)?

It might work, but it raises three key questions when it comes to tags and taxonomies:

1. Tags have succeeded because they require so little thought and can used without regard for their meaning beyond oneself. (I suspect many of us do consider social meanings, but one doesn’t have to.) Would a wiki that requires us to think about metadata work? Would enough people participate?

2. If enough people participate, could we come up with a universal taxonomy specific enough to be useful? Do we think about things in sufficiently the same ways?

3. If such a taxonomy existed, would we use it? It would be a bottom-up controlled vocabulary, but it’d still be a controlled vocabulary that requires people to look things up.

I suspect that having reduced the problem of metadata to its most elemental form — type in a word or two that will remind us of what a page or photo is about — we will now complexify it usefully to the point at which the complexity gets in the way. It’s impossible to predict where those various points will be. (Complexity reaches its own level of misunderstanding.) I thus don’t think we can predict where Emanuele’s suggestion falls, although I worry that it’s more appealing to information architects than to “normal” people. (Yeah yeah, info architects are normal people. Except not when it comes to information. Besides, have you ever hung out with information architects??? :) [Tags: ]

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30 Responses to “Wikisonomies”

  1. Thank you for your answer David. Ok, a few points only to be clear:

    1. The approach I’m thinking about it’s not a revolution but better an evolution of actual tagging. People can continue using tags in the same way the use them now.

    2. The wiki is hidden under a nice UI. People simply have tags. Every tag can have a father tag (the hierarchy) and people can move tags. This is a wiki based approach not a wiki software.

    3. The structure we could get from this approach won’t be a precise taxonomy. I believe that ambiguity, as an implicit result of language variability, gives power to folksonomies and shouldn’t been eliminated.

    4. And finally, why are you thinking to a controlled vocabulary? In every moment, I can add a new tag or a completely new branch in the emerging hierarchical organization, ignoring the keywords other people are using.

    My opinion is that this approach could be a generalization of what we have now and, at the same time, an experiment to discover if adding a bit of structure can improve the usefulness of folksonomies.

  2. as one of those information architects david refers to, i understand his persepctive about a controlled vocabulary. in essense, we’re talking about a living, breathing, evolving thesaurus — complete with associative, hierarchical and relational constructs.

    the value of normalizing various folksonomies with such relationships would be huge across the meta-web level, but the beauty of folksonomies is the simplicity of the ui; the pitch for participation is a relatively easy sell due to the lack of cognitive friction involved.

    the problem is that every tag does not have a father; it has a father, step-father, father-in-law, etc. and each of those relationships are perceived differently based on an individual’s POV. does the father of venice = italy or california? well, ask a SOcal and italian resident for their opinion on the matter. the same goes for, say, orange. is the father fruit or color?

    controlled vocabularies and thesauri are developed for specific domains, where these questions have specific answers.

    now, if your proposed ui can deal with these issues without increasing cognitive friction *while* adding participation incentive, well, we’re on our way to organizing a post-modern universe. ;-)

  3. I don’t get tags. I don’t use tags, I don’t understand tags (except as the little words people put at the bottom of each blog post–is that all there is to them?). I don’t want to use tags and they just seem like another thing I have to worry about when I write or read a post. Maybe I’m missing something but I don’t think so. They just seem trivial and useless. To me at least.

  4. Sean, you are wrong if I have understood right: in my vision you can have a tag with the same label in different parts of the system: Venice could be undert Italy and under Utah. This is not a taxonomy!

    Browsing: you will find Venice after having clicked on Italy or having clicked on Utah.

    Searching: searching for the tag ‘Venice’ you will find two (or even more) related results that you can investigate further.

    Does it make sense for you?


  5. Emanuele, thanks for the clarification. Sorry my writing needed it.

    Clearly what you’re proposing would not be a _strictly_ controlled vocabulary. But it would be useful to the extent that people used the words in the hierarchy the way those words were intended. (And, as you say, people could add words to the hierarchy, and add the same word under multiple headings.) If the hierarchy captured all of the ambiguous meanings of words, it wouldn’t be all that useful because you’d have to disambiguate the words before using them. So, I assume (and thus am likely to be wrong) that people would check the hierarchy to find the right word, and now we have people looking things up in a loosely controlled vocabulary _if_ they want to take advantage of the hierarchy.

    Am I still misunderstanding?

  6. My idea is that we have to couple with ambiguity as a value.

    David, you are right but what you propose is only one of the possibilities: instead of navigating (a loosely) controlled vocabulary to choose the right tag, people could use a google-suggest-like AJAX tool that, while you are typing the tag, suggests possibile tags starting with what you have type with their parent:

    If I’m writing “Venice” and I have typed “Ven” the system could suggest:

    – Venice My idea is that we have to couple with ambiguity as a value.

    David, you are right but what you propose is only one of the possibilities: instead of navigating (a loosely) controlled vocabulary to choose the right tag, people could use a google-suggest-like AJAX tool that, while you are typing the tag, suggests possibile tags starting with what you have type with their parent:

    If I’m writing “Venice” and I have typed “Ven” the system could suggest:

    – Venice < Utah - Venice < Italy Incidentally, this could work also for a synonym control mechanism or to suggest preferred terms.

  7. Ops! some problems with what I wrote. Trying again.

    If I’m writing “Venice” and I have typed “Ven” the system could suggest:

    – Venice (Utah)
    – Venice (Italy)

  8. The best way to tell is to build it…

  9. Please ask Peter (Van Dijck) for that! :-)

    Of course, if Siderean doesn’t introduce something like this before. I know they are playing with tags.Right?

    Anyway, their method is based on automatic aggregation not on people doing the work.

  10. Perhaps I’m missing some subtlety here, but I thought that with using several tags for a post/page/pic/whatever one can connect to other items with similar tags, and find other tags that were/are related in the originators’ minds, and from there create a personal web of knowledge. No need for pre-defined vocabulary, or central repository, or information architects to design something that is useful in its messiness.

    Most architects I know don’t like messy; many people I know do, and therein lies the attraction.

  11. Mark, why not thinking to a “little structed messy”?

    The ability to describe the world using your vision and language still remains here. A structured layer can be added only to improve the findability. This doesn’t affect tags that you can still choose freely.

    So where do you see the restriction?

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  13. Mark, that’s well put (as usual), but the wikisonomy could enable a relative handful of people to “clean up” the clusterings and relationships that emerge from a much more broadly generated folksonomy. Most people wouldn’t want to engage in that clean up but a handful of people with information architectural urges could do a lot. The pruned and stitched wikisonomy wouldn’t be universal (because we don’t all think the same), and I suspect that the more precise it got, the less useful it would be. And I’m not sure how taggers would actually use it. But, it _might_ be useful, and it might be useful in unpredictable ways.


  14. Emanuele: you are absolutely correct; your concept is not a taxonomy, it’s a folk-driven, multi-faceted thesaurus. you’re not proposing to control lexicon in a traditional manner, with relationships of USE, broader, narrower, etc., but you are suggesting to design an interface (and an underlying relational database) that is both easy to navigate (browse or discover) and rich with search result relationships while leveraging the rich views of such relationships.

    technorati employs the feature mark refers; based on a tag search, technorati displays the top seven related tags (a tufte choice of numerical display possibly?). take a look at the “venice” results page.

    from this execution, one can surmise that technorati’s POV is that specific views of hierarchy, associations and relativity don’t provide enough value to the end user, all that matters are the most “related” tags used in “venice” posts.

    simply put, “i don’t cares who are the parents, the siblings and the distant relatives, i want to know who are the closest relatives in the family to my queried tag.” straight up popularity.

    whether that’s valid or not, who knows. but no matter how you look at it, the decision does greatly reduce the complexity of the interface.

    all said, i do agree that exploring interfaces to present object (tag) relationships on multiple levels is a worthwhile effort.

  15. I had a long talk with Ross Mayfield about the intersection of Wikis and Tags. The Wiki people will tell you that they’ve already got tags because they’ve had wiki categories for some time. But perhaps inevitably they’ve take a Wiki approach to it. The goal is to get the community to converge on the one true tag set for a particular page. And the user interface (both for entering and tag navigation) is slightly awkward.

    What I think is missing is the UI that makes it completely trivial to enter a set of space or comma separated tags and to navigate the tags once they’re in there. This suggests that it was actually the UI that was revolutionary about those sites as much as the data structures.

    But there’s also a deeper question here about the relationship between public pages (URIs), public shared tags and private tags. To see this problem expressed go and have a look at what Last.FM have done. Anyone can tag a Track, Album or Artist. There’s then two ways of looking and searching. You can use all public tags or you can use just your own. The problem in a wiki (especially with anonymous posting) is handling the tension between the one true set of tags that the public have converged on for a page, the mess of tags applied by all editors and the set of tags you personally have applied.

  16. So we all agree about the crucial importance of the UI and of the data model below.

    Only to underline once more, for me, the wiki is not visible to users. They only know the possibility of moving tags (and also maybe describe them).

    And please, notice that the hierarchical approach is already used (by single users) in through a tag structure like this “tag1/tag2/tag3”. The system doesn’t support explicitly this usage and doesn’t aggregate it. So I feel that someone has already got the idea.

    Julian, for your concern: I have not thought about how the system could differentiate between private and public tags. Anyway I’m sure about one point: is the community of users that make tags emerging not editors. Here editors are simply normal users not system’s operators.

  17. I so love long, intricate philosophical discussions! However, the *key* I think is that there are still a great number of people who blog who do not use tags, nor even know about what Technorati, delicious, or any of the other tagging systems are up to. And while there is a fairly good sized demographic that does indeed use tags in these various systems, would the same demographic be willing to begin to work with a wiki? Something I always like to remember is that when things get way too complicated, the “folks” start to lose interest and the picture one can get of the importance of this-or-that is relatively skewed.

  18. Tish, you should read the previuos comments..

  19. “Tags have succeeded because they require so little thought and can used without regard for their meaning beyond oneself.”

    It seems like there are a lot of ways one could interpret “tags” and “succeeded” in that sentence.

    Social tagging systems like Flickr have succeeded in getting groups of people to benefit from each other’s tagging (though the nature of that benefit doesn’t always have to do with the strict “meaning” of the tags).

    But, it’s also probably fair to suggest the opposite–that most applications that have used tags (aka keywords) proved to require way too much thought of the user, and the tags did not succeed in these cases.

    I’ll say from experience that one thing that is nice with tag systems that support hierarchy is that they collapse nicely into flat views, e.g.,


    turn into the “tags”:

    Place Italy California Venice Restaurant Perfume

    (so the hierarchy translates into more, useful, tags)

    But, socially/culturally, unless a group is in sync towards a common goal (e.g., “let’s create a structure we agree on”), it’s socially smoother to not allow people to change each others tags, but only to add to them, like:

    Person A adds tag to item Z: Venice
    Person B adds tag to item Z: Italy/Venice

  20. Well, I think that David is right when he says that a scenario like the one depicted by Emanuele can grow in unpredictable manners.
    This can be both positive and negative, of course.

    Now, as for the participation issue, I think it could become something like wikipedia, with some users contributing to the creation of the hierarchy (like in wikipedia some users contribute content) and the others taking advantage of it, making changes in some cases.

    What I found fascinating in Emanuele’s theory, is that it could create a “semantic cloud”, where each tag could possibly be connected with other words belonging to the same semantic field. This is a system studied by semiology and called Quillian Model, and it mimics quite precisely the way our brain organizes ideas and concepts.

    Now, wouldn’t it be really great if I could navigate through keywords in a free association of ideas which is created by the connective intelligence of the Internet?

  21. federico, have you ever seen the thinkmap visual thesauri?

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  24. I’ll head over and read the article, but my reaction here is that tags add just a little explicitness with low cognitive load, and the more you have to hold in your head to make them, the less you will make.

    As David points out, tag co-occurrence actually works very well in finding relationships between tags – that is how we derive related tags at Technorati, and Flickr’s tag clusters are a similar idea in deriving relation ships between tags from their co-occurrence on tagged items.

  25. Sean: it’s exactly what i was thinking.
    Kevin: I totally agree with you about the cognitive load. The co-occurrence is a good system, but I think it could be even better.
    Good point, though.

  26. David’s question glosses over the different roles that are played in wikis:

    “Tags have succeeded because they require so little thought and can used without regard for their meaning beyond oneself. (I suspect many of us do consider social meanings, but one doesn’t have to.) Would a wiki that requires us to think about metadata work? Would enough people participate?”

    In a wiki, many people add and edit some content. A smaller number of people are active editors who boldly refactor content. The tagging interface would need to be trivially easy for people who want to tag with minimal thought. The refactoring interface would need to be usable by people who want to see how tags are used and organize or consolidate them.

  27. I just published a paper about Wikipedia’s category system you might be interested in. I analyze and compare it with collaborative tagging and traditional classification (see also the posting in my research blog).

  28. I do not think the collaborative TAG idea is going to work.

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