Joho the BlogNovember 2006 - Page 3 of 8 - Joho the Blog

November 22, 2006

Frank Paynter on Elaine Peterson on folksonomy

Frank has some sharp comments about Elaine Peterson’s article on the philosophical implications of foksonomies. [Tags: ]


November 21, 2006

Ranganathan stuff

Mohamed Taher of the Multifaith Library in Toronto, in response to my transcription of a talk by Ranganathan, links to a list of photos of the great library scientist, and the work of Lennart Björneborn who, among other things, has transposed Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science into Five Laws of the Web. [Tags: ]


November 20, 2006

DOEP (Daily Open-Ended Puzzle) (intermittent): Angry packaging

What packaging makes your blood boil?

I hate the thick, clear plastic, blister-packaging that’s sealed all the way around and inviolable except with a serious knife or possibly a band saw. And puncturing it isn’t enough. The plastic is so thick that you have to actually carve the product out of its container. Because the cut plastic is itself sharp, I worry about amputating a finger if the knife slips.

I also hate the way the cut plastic smells, but now I’m just piling on.

On the other hand, I find this to be funny to the point of being depressing…

And you? Vent your packaged ire!

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November 19, 2006

Beneath the Metadata – a reply

Elaine Peterson, associate professor and information resources specialist at Montana State University, has published an article called “Beneath the Metadata: Some Philosophical Problems with Folksonomy” in D-Lib Magazine (doi:10.1045/november2006-peterson). Since she spends some time disgreeing with my “Tagging and why it matters,” I figured I’d reply.

Elaine’s article begins with a clear, straightforward explanation of taxonomies and folksonomies. Then she gives reasons to dislike folksonomies.

First, she says folksonomies are unlikely to be “good for the average user…since folksonomies will not produce an efficient index.” It’s not clear what Elaine means by “efficient.” But if she means that users won’t be able to to find information efficiently relative to traditional taxonomies, then there’s evidence that she’s wrong, at least in some instances (e.g., Flickr).

Then she moves to her philosophical critique. In essence (so to speak), Elaine objects that folksonomies are non-Aristotelian. Ironically, that’s a theme of Everything Is Miscellaneous. The difference is that for Elaine, the fact that folksonomies are non-Aristotelian means they’re wrong, whereas for me it means they’re probably important and definitely interesting.

Elaine writes, “Some of the problems with folksonomies can be traced to problems inherent with relativism.” But, folksonomies represent the weakest form of relativism there is. You organize your home library alphabetically by author while I put the books I consult most often on the lower shelves. Our taxonomies are not making statements about how we think the world is. They are not making statements at all. They’re making our libraries more convenient. They are relative to how we think and to the fact that I’m rather short. Even Aristotle may have stored his clean togas in a different order than Plato without having to get into a metaphysical dispute.

But Elaine sees this as perhaps “the strongest criticism one could make of folksonomies”:

Because tags are relativized, personal, idiosyncratic views can coexist and thrive in the form of tags, in spite of their inconsistencies. Readers of texts on the Internet become individual interpreters, despite the document author’s intent.

This is a double-barrelled criticism.

1. Tags may be inconsistent with one another. Again, not even Aristotle would object to this. If he tags the photo of Alcibiades as short, Plato tags it as tall because of their relative heights, and Socrates tags it as dreamy, the set is inconsistent, but the cosmos continues unaffected.

2. Tags may be inconsistent with the author’s intent. Sure. Author’s intent is not the only way we look things up. Even if we are tagging what we think the book is about — Alcibiades tags The Republic as “politics” and Aristotle tags it “philosophy” — surely no metaphysical damage is done. The author’s intention is not unarguable. Nor is it the last word on what a book is about. Within the realm of intent, there’s plenty of room for disagreement, even when the aim of the classification is not simply to organize bookmarks but to encapsulate the significance of a work. Tags are metaphysically disruptive only if one believes that (a) there is one and only one way of categorizing The Republic, (b) that way has to be according to Plato’s intent, and (c) tags are intended to state the single, true classification of The Republic. If Elaine is right, then what is that true classification of The Republic? I don’t know, I don’t think Elaine knows, I don’t think Plato knew, and I’m pretty sure the entire question is technically nonsensical.

Elaine then raises the question of whether, granting the possibility of multiple interpretations, there can be false interpretations. This is not a concern if tags are mnemonics by which people re-find resources. She then worries that if all interpretations are of equal worth (a point she disagrees with), “if users can continuously add tags to articles, at some point it is likely that the whole system will become unusable.” This is an empirical claim. We have reason to think it’s false: Flickr’s clustering has gotten better as it has gotten more tags to analyze.

Her final criticism of folksonomies “is that their advocates seem to assume everything on the Internet needs to be organized and classified.” I would ask Elaine to find a single advocate of folksonomies who makes the claim she’s disputing.

Elaine concludes with two comments.

1. “Folksonomists are confusing cataloging structure with personal opinions and subsequent social bookmarking.” Actually, we’re not. Folksonomies exist—even terminologically—in distinction from traditional cataloguing structures. We may disagree with Elaine about the role, utility and philosophical significance of folksonomies, but we’re not confusing them with traditional taxonomies.

2. “A traditional classification scheme based on Aristotelian categories yields search results that are more exact.” I don’t know exactly what Elaine means by “exact,” but there are certainly practical advantages to traditional taxonomies. They are more predictable and thus can be easier to learn how to navigate. They are expensive to create, so the task is usually given to people with genuine expertise. They can engender a common vocabulary that facilitates discussion. But, most of all, we have no practical choice but to use traditional taxonomies when organizing physical objects: The physical book can go on only one shelf. The physical metadata about the book—the card in the card catalog, typically—allows a few more ways of categorizing and organizing it, but more than that and the catalog gets unwieldy. The simplicity of traditional taxonomies, reflecting a single-termed Aristotelian essentialism that few current philosophers take seriously, imposes on the realm of understanding a limitation inherent in the physical realm. That simplicity is no longer required. Indeed, it gets in the way of our ability to navigate the digital domain.

There’s an argument to be had over whether there is a single, universal, non-relative way in which the things of the universe are ordered. There’s no serious argument about whether there’s a single best way to lump and split our bookmarks or laundry.

And I’ll take one step further toward the metaphysical: Folksonomies are not only frequently more useful than top-down taxonomies; they better reflect the bottom-up, messy, ambiguous, inconsistent, social nature of meaning—despite Aristotle and the tradition his genius spawned.

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No cats were herded in making this site

Chris Locke and Jeneane Sessum are recommending the new Kat Herding blog. She sure is perky! [Tags: ]


November 18, 2006

Keep Radio Open Source alive

Chris Lydon’s Radio Open Source, one of the most encouraging experiments in moving broadcast past broadcast, needs bucks as it looks for a new institutional source of funding. Read about it here. [Tags: ]


Inverse recommendations

Tim Spalding’s LibraryThing has a really cool new feature: An unsuggester.

Unsuggester takes “people who like this also like that” and turns it on its head. It analyzes the seven million books LibraryThing members have recorded as owned or read, and comes back with books least likely to share a library with the book you suggest. The unsuggestions come from LibraryThing data, not from Amazon. LibraryThing also produces great suggestions.>

Here are some of the results I generated:


#1 Unsuggestion

New Oxford Annotated Bible Guilty Pleasures
The Firm A Thousand Plateaus
A thousand plateaus Deception Point (Dan Brown)
Da Vinci Code Lipstick Traces: A secret history of the twentieth century
The Long Tail Les misérables
Slaughterhouse Five Vogue Knitting on the Go: Socks Two
The New Our Bodies Ourselves Good to great
Lies and the lying liars who tell them (Al Franken) Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian hedonist
Godless: The church of liberalism (ann coulter) To the Lighthouse
America (the book) (Jon Stewart) Systematic theology : an introduction to biblical doctrine

The unsuggestion for Cluetrain? King Lear. Ouch. [Tags: ]

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Wikipedia, Wikimania, Wikipoohpoohia

Wikimania, the Wikipedia conference, will be held in Taipei next August. Wikimania 2006 was held at Harvard and was a fascinating event. Wikipedia is one of those phenomena that seems to be without bottom: There’s always some group wrapped up in a level one deeper than you knew about. I don’t think I’ll make it to Taipei for this one, but I’m sure I’ll regret it.

Meanwhile, a happy front-page story by Robert Weisman in the Boston Globe touts the spread of wikis. It begins well with a quote from Dan Bricklin, but for some reason, it takes Wikipedia as an example of a wiki that “stumbled” and as a “fiasco.” Why? Because “it had to deputize a cleanup crew to enforce quality standards, catch mistakes, and restore stories altered by pranksters or partisans.” Isn’t that a bit like saying the Boston Globe is a fiasco because it has had to hire a cleanup crew to enforce quality standards, catch mistakes, and check facts? There are obviously problems with Wikipedia, and it’s subject to a type of error that mainstream encyclopedias are not, but it also has strengths, including its topicality, the amount it covers, its linked architecture, and its ability to correct itself quickly. I do not believe that history is going to put Wikipedia into the fiasco category. [Tags: ]


Deval Patrick: Opportunites made and missed

Deval Patrick, our shiny governor-elect, has picked an outsider as his chief of staff. Joan Wallace-Benjamin’s got a Ph.D. in public policy but she’s also has a big heart and lots of administrative experience: She was CEO of The Home for Little Wanderers (Best-named. Nonprofit. Ever.) and used to head up the Massachusetts Urban League. So far, Patrick is making good on his message of hope.

On the other hand, Patrick’s team posted a disappointing site to help with the transition into office. It’s got some good information, and many pages have a link you can click to submit your own ideas. But the ideas go straight to the Patrick team. There’s no place for citizens to post in public and talk with one another. Judging from this site, the Patrick campaign—administration—still thinks it’s the hub of the universe. Let us talk together in public and we’ll come up with ideas isolated individuals won’t…and we’ll be directly engaged in our own governance. Now that‘s a hope for democracy.

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November 17, 2006

Buzz about BuzzFeed

BuzzFeed figures out, through a combination of trend analysis and sweaty editors, what the buzz is on the Net. It says it “distinguishes what is actually interesting from what is merely hyped.” And you know it must work because the #1 topic there right now is “nip slips” of the rich and famous.

Kottke‘s got more on it… [Tags: ]

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