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November 30, 2008

Philosophical problems with folksonomies

[Note from the next day: This is a little embarrassing. I just noticed that this was first published in 2006. It came through my inbox on Saturday, and I carelessly thought it had just come out.]

Elaine Peterson, associate professor at Montana State University, has an article in D-Lib Magazine called “Beneath the Metadata: Some Philosophical Problems with Folksonomy.” It’s good to see the issues taken seriously, and many of her premises strike me as true. But, I disagree with her pragmatic conclusion that “A traditional classification scheme will consistently provide better results to information seekers.” And I think I disagree with her philosophical critique, although I am not confident that I’m understanding it as she intends.

I read the article two different ways. At first I thought it was a critique of folksonomies on the grounds that they contradict traditional philosophical premises. The next time I read it, I thought it was simply pointing out the differences. Now I’m tending toward my first reading, in part because her section on the traditional defends it against some objections while about half of the section on folksonomies is critical of them.

Her philosophical criticism seems to be rooted in what she presents as the Aristotelian approach to classification: Things are lumped with other things like them, and simultaneously distinguished from them. Most important, she says, is the idea that “A is not B,” which means that A cannot be truthfully classified also as a B. But what about digital items that “can reside in more than one place”? That is “irrelevant,” she says, “since one is talking about a classification scheme, not about the items themselves.” I have to admit I don’t understand this. What is the philosophical basis for restricting things to one category if not that that restriction reflects the metaphysical truth that A cannot also be B? So, I think she’s saying we are to reject multiple classifications because such classifications are untrue metaphysically.

This reading is supported by the section on folksonomy, where she identifies philosophical relativism as “the underlying philosophy behind folksonomies,” and pretty clearly intends this as a criticism. (I personally am no fan of philosophical relativism, although there’s a longer story there.) The problem with relativism, she writes, is that it means classification escapes from the demand that A be A and not be B. I take this as indicating that, in her section on traditional classification, she is agreeing with the 1930 textbook she cites that recommends that classifiers give “emphasis to what the author intended to describe.” If you’re arguing that, on metaphysical grounds, things should only be classified in a single category, I guess looking for the author’s intention gives you a way forward…even though categorizing only by the author’s intent is to me like insisting that readers only underline passages that the author considers significant.

And this highlights what I think is my root disagreement with Elaine’s piece (if I’m understanding it correctly). It’s fine to raise pragmatic problems with folksonomies, as she does. But Elaine is pointing at philosophical problems. And those problems require assuming that folksonomists are trying to do what Aristotelian categorizers are trying to do. But they’re not. Aristotelians (I’m using this sloppily as shorthand, so pardon my “tagging”) are trying to find the one true and right category for each thing, creating a well-ordered system free of contradictions. Folksonomies are trying to help us find stuff.

Inconsistencies in tags actually make a folksonomy useful; a folksonomy that consists of 1,000 instances of a single tag isn’t worth the folksonomizing. But these inconsistencies are a problem for Elaine because she is thinking of a folksonomic classification as a philosophical statement rather than as a mere tool. She says that “perhaps … the strongest criticism one could make of folksonomies” is that because tags can be true for one group and false for another,

a folksonomy universe allows both true and false statements to coexist. 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.

To this many of us will say “Hallelujah!” because we disagree with Elaine’s opening claim that all classification is about answering the philosophical question, “What is it?” Indeed, she’s a hard-liner: An inconsistency to Elaine is any multiple classification, not simply one that contradicts others. Classifying a dissertation about “Moby-Dick” under “ecology” as well as under “novels: 19th Century” would introduce an insupportable inconsistency (in Elaine’s terms). She seems to assume that tags are Aristotelian judgments in which we say that A is a B. But, when I tag a photo of my wife as “ann,” “birthday,” “2008,” and “family events,” I am not saying the essence of Ann (or her photo) is any of those things. Even if I believed in essentialism (I pretty much don’t), we could make use of Aristotle’s idea of “accidental properties” (non-essential but true) to explain what I’m doing. And if I tag Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” as “Angelina Jolie” or “tripe” knowing full well that I am not staying true to the author’s intent, well, tough on Oliver. Tags are not always truth claims, and a folksonomy is not intended to mirror nature. Indeed, a folksonomy can reveal the most appalling areas of ignorance and prejudice in a populace — and, pragmatically, we may well want to address those popular errors, especially since a folksonomy can indeed reinforce them

But, Elaine is right to point to the philosophical implications of folksonomies. An individual folksonomy may make no claim to providing the real truth about how the world is ordered, but the use of folksonomies generally carries some philosophical implications. Elaine sees relativism underneath them while I see a form of pragmatism. But folksonomies didn’t arise out of philosophy. They are a “found” ordering: Hey, we have all these tags, so why don’t we make use of them in a more systematic way? So, I think Elaine is mislocating the philosophical moment in folksonomies. Philosophy isn’t underneath them or behind them. It’s after them, in their effect. Folksonomies reinforce our move away from the essentialist view that every thing has a single category that reflects its single and real essence. We’ve been moving away from that view for a long time as a culture. The success of folksonomies as a tool reveals that we accepted the traditional Aristotelian scheme in part because it was useful. If its utility has been undercut, then we have to ask for the other reasons we should believe in an Aristotelian metaphysics.

The ball is in Aristotle’s court.

* * *

Most of Elaine’s outright criticisms of folksonomies are actually practical, not philosophic. She makes them without empirical evidence. She has not convinced me that she’s right. For example, her final paragraph says:

A traditional classification scheme based on Aristotelian categories yields search results that are more exact. Traditional cataloging can be more time consuming, and is by definition more limiting, but it does result in consistency within its scheme. Folksonomy allows for disparate opinions and the display of multicultural views; however, in the networked world of information retrieval, a display of all views can also lead to a breakdown of the system… Most information seekers want the most relevant hits when keying in a search query.

By “exact” she apparently means the results include fewer false results (where a result is false if the search term doesn’t really apply to the result, as when you search for “fish” and get back posts about dolphins). And that seems correct: A professionally constructed index should have fewer of those sorts of mistakes. But the second criterion in her concluding paragraph is relevancy, and there folksonomies well may beat a professionally constructed index. Not only might a folksonomy retrieve results more relevant to me personally or to my cultural sub-group, but it constructs a semantic system that can retrieve results the narrow and carefully categorizing by experts might miss. So, I disagree with her last sentence: “A traditional classification scheme will consistently provide better results to information seekers.” Traditional classification is best for certain types of searches — ones where you want precision over recall and relevancy, and especially where there is a confined domain of contents that you have to be sure you’ve searched thoroughly — but is not as good as a folksonomy for other types of searches.

In short, neither traditional nor folksonomic classifications are best. Each is best for something.

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November 29, 2008

Beginner to Beginner: Splitting strings into arrays in Javascript

I mentioned to my nephew Joel Weinberger, a CS grad student at UC Berkeley, that I wished the Javascript “split” method took multiple delimiters, and within minutes, he wrote one for me. If you know what I’m talking about, you can click here to get a zip file with the code (including a function as well as a method) and a sample. If you don’t …

[Note: all explanations are approximate.] Javascript comes with a built-in method for converting a string (that is, what normally consists of letters and characters in quotes) into an array (that is, a data structure of numbered elements). So, if you have a string that’s really a list of elements, such as “monday, tuesday, wednesday” or “12-345-6,” the split method will automatically chop it up into an array, using a delimiter of your choice (a comma or a dash in the two examples given). This is very useful.

But suppose you have a string such as this: “beef OR chicken AND duck” You want to be able to chop it up at the ORs and the ANDs, but the split method only lets you specify one delimiter.

Enter Joel. His multiSplit method lets you specify an array of delimiters. It chops up the string and records the phrases and their delimiters. Very handy.

Thanks, Joel!

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James Boyle on the public domain

James Boyle’s new book, The Public Domain, is an entertaining, insightful, seminal work. It’s available now for sale, reading on line for free, or downloading for free. You thus have zero excuses not to read it. And you’ll be glad you did. A book this important shouldn’t be so delightful.

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Oliver Stone: Advancing the art of film

Amazon’s own review of the director’s cut of Oliver Stone’s Alexander (the worst major movie ever?) includes the following note:

In Stone’s final cut, epic battles remain chaotic (although Alexander’s strategy is somewhat easier to follow, with on-screen titles indicating left, right, and center during his army’s greatest maneuvers)…

Yes, those are the sort of advanced techniques they just don’t teach you in film school.

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November 28, 2008

Black Friday

Last night, my family and my brother’s family went to the outlet stores in Clinton CT at midnight when they opened. Or, let me be precise: At midnight we were waiting in the line of traffic sprawling out from the parking lot. We got one of the last spaces, and it is a bi-ig freaking parking lot.

The quarter mile of outlets store were jammed. People were lined up outside of popular stores, such as J. Crew, waiting to get in so that they could buy preppy t-shirts announcing their support of J. Crew and all that he (?) stands for, and then wait 20-30 minutes to pay for it.

I don’t know what this says about the economy. Maybe it means we’re not feeling as poor as we should. Maybe it means that we’re feeling so poor that we’ll line up to get a bargain. Maybe it means nothing.

But it sure was a pain in the ass. um, I mean, it was a shopatravaganza!

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Twitter and market conversations

Bob Walsh at Avangate posts about two companies using Twitter to talk with customers. Zappos is a particularly fun example. (Via Graeme Thickins.)

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November 27, 2008

LibraryThing vs. Library of Congress

Vincent Sterken has posted his master’s thesis, which examines LibraryThing.com to understand the dynamics and utility of social tagging. It begins with an exceptionally clear backgrounder on tagging and taxonomies, and then moves to a fascinating exploration of LibraryThing’s folksonomy, including a comparison of how LibraryThing’s community and the Library of Congress classify books.

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Control doesn’t scale

I sometimes put up a Powerpoint (well, Keynote) slide that says “Control doesn’t scale.”The assumption that large projects only succeed if they’re centrally controls led and managed turns out to have been true because we limited the scope of what we we considered realistic. You can build a Britannica using a centrally controlled system, but you could not build a Wikipedia that way.

But I know that there are some important counter-examples, so I’ll frequently add, “Except at an huge cost in expense and freedom,” for we know all too well that some regimes have managed to maintain intense control over massive populations for generations.

Today there’s an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald with Isaac Mao, pioneering Chinese blogger and Berkman fellow, in which he says the Chinese authorities are unable to keep up with increasing volume of social communications the 108M bloggers, millions in social networks, and people texting and twittering away.

So, maybe control doesn’t scale after all.

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Twittering reality

At search.twitter.com, the query “near:mumbai within:15mi” will bring you a remarkable stream. (Via Rick Levine.)

We are thinking of you, Mumbai.

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November 26, 2008

Thanking whom?

Thanksgiving is far and away my favorite national holiday. Family, food, gratitude…what’s not to like?

Just as the meal is slightly more complicated for those of us who don’t eat meat, the holiday is a little more gnarly for those who don’t believe in G-d. We agnostics and atheists have all of the believers’ joy in what we have, as well as the simultaneous sad remembering of those who do not, but we don’t have anyone to thank. That’s a loss; religion as I’ve seen it practiced — my wife is an Orthodox Jew — sanctifies the everyday, which leads us to care ever more for the world we’ve been given and our companions in it.

I don’t have that sense of sanctity because I lack the sense of a Sanctifier. I am left believing that while the Renaissance distinction between Fortuna and Virtus is useful in some instances, in the final accounting when you’re stripped down to bare wood, even your virtues are accidents. If you hadn’t been born to those particular parents, in that particular time and place, with a body that can do this but not that, with the set of experiences that happened to form you, you wouldn’t have the virtues you claim as your own. It’s all Fortuna. I happened to have won the lottery: I have a healthy family, work I love, water, and a roof. I have no One to thank, but that does not make me less appreciative of what is spread on my table and aware that it could be overturned tomorrow.

I’m fine with that, especially since without Anyone to thank for singling me out for a happy life, I also don’t have Anyone to blame for leaving so many behind. That’s a more gnarly question than how to make a good vegetarian stuffing.

Happy Thanksgiving to us all.

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