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February 28, 2005

Stephen Downes on tags and communities

Terrific speech — provocative, funny, asking great questions — by Stephen Downes (transcript mp3) about what we can do to keep tags from forming power laws that suppress community. How can tags encourage community? He suggests embedding a pointer to FOAF files in RSS feeds, but the presentation is much broader than that. (Here’s a post of mine that relates to one point he makes.) [Thanks to Scott Rosenberg for the link.] [Technorati tags: taxonomy Downes ]

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Why tagging matters — Notes

The Berkman Center has a lunchtime speaker every Tuesday, and this week it’s my turn. I’m talking about — guess what? — taxonomies and tags. It’s an informal venue, and with luck I’ll be interrupted after ten minutes, but I need to have a full talk prepared, just in case. I’ve been having trouble structuring it. Here are the notes I have so far. Comments? Criticisms? Rude suggestions?

Why Tags Matter

I want to talk about three ways tags matter.

If necessary: Brief explanation of tags. Show and Flickr. [Yes, I’m confident Berkpeople know what tags are, but these talks draw a broader audience.]

First, tags may not matter:

We’re in an early adopter phase. Historically, people have resisted adding metadata to objects.

Why is there such enthusiasm now? A. We get individual value from tagging.
B. No one is telling us to do it or how to do it.

First reason: Aristotle

For Aristotle, to be is to be a type of thing. Types = categories. He gave us genus-species definitions: X is a type of P and is different from other members of P. I.e., X is what it is because of the category it’s in.

Atistotle’s implications/assumptions:

Knowledge and world are one

Categories are defined by principles (e.g., “rational animal”): These principles are rational, can be known by experts who have authority, exist independent of our awareness, and are precise. (Every member of a category is an equally good example of that category.)

Aristotle’s principles of organization come from how we organize physical things in the real world: Lumping and splitting. So, ideas are assumed to be subject to the same limitations as physical things: X can only be “shelved” in one spot at a time. (Law of Identity — ((A=A) and ~(A = ~A)) — becomes true for ideas as well as for physical objects.)

Challenges to Aristotle:

Postmodernism (brief!): Disputes that categories are independent of us and are rational. Points to relation of knowledge, authority and power.

Eleanor Rosch: Not all members of a category are equally good examples. Her theory of classification by prototype. Prototype classification says our conceptual organization is far fuzzier and messier than Aristotle thought.

Tagging: Categories are driven by convenience not principle, are relative and relevant to the individual, and are non-authoritative

Lack of special status for author’s own tags indicates just how non-authoritative tagging is

Why does disputing Aristotle matter? Aristotelianism affects us when we think of the world as something that starts with definitions, that consists of topics that persist through history, that enable domain-specific authority.

Second reason: Nature of topics

Frank Miksa, professor at the University of Texas, Austin: We all tend to believe that “there exists a realm of knowledge that grows through individual contributions and is transmitted from generation to generation such that its existence is thought to be continuous and is capable of being examined.”

Example of the breakdown of that idea: Wikipedia

Topics are whatever someone is interested in, so long as it can be verified

450,000 entries in English so far (60,000 in Encyc. Britannica)

Categories (like tags) are assigned by readers. Hierarchy also. E.g., Tori Amos is a top-level category because someone assigned her sub-categories. This isn’t a statement about what’s important but about how to make it easy to find the new Tori Amos CD.

Topics are becoming more like interests than self-standing, transgenerational slots. Also, finer-grained.

Third reason: Re-meaning

We have been born into taxonomies. Now we’re making our own. It’s messy, but, well, so are we.

The fact that the basic principles of taxonomies — lumping and splitting — have reflected physical limitations means that our alienation from categories is an alienation from the physical world??

Most exciting thing: We don’t know where this is going. A new infrastructure of human meaning. What will emerge?

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Web of Ideas: The Time of the Net

This Wednesday, I’m leading yet another in a series of discussions at the Berkman Center. This time the topic is:

Many of our metaphors about the Internet treat it as a place, which is perfectly appropriate. But many – or perhaps all – Net phenomena have a temporal dimension which is not “merely” metaphorical. For example, weblogs are able to become proxy selves because they have permanent addresses, IM’s distinguishing characteristic is that it’s interruptive of the now, and discussions are presented as threaded as a way to sort through overlapping chronologies. How else does time manifest itself on the Net? How is it different from real world time and our traditional conception of time as a series of atomic moments?

It’s open to anyone. And we serve pizza. Woohoo! Wednesday, 6-7:30pm, at the Baker House (map) [Technorati tag: ]

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February 27, 2005

Authors tags and topics

I find it interesting that I haven’t seen a new age tagging app that gives special social weight to the tags the authors of works create. Obviously authors get to sort their resources by the tags they’ve assigned, but when it comes to make sense of the aggregation of tags, authors’ tags have no special weight.

This isn’t a criticism. Rather, it’s an observation about how reader-centric we’re becoming.

It also is another signal that we are shifting from topics to interests. Topics get declared by authorities and have authority. They are assumed to have some independent, trans-generational longevity. Topics can even have ontological status: A topic is what a resource is about. In the tagging world, though, a tag expresses what something means to me, the reader. It can say what something is about, but it can just as easily denote its genre (“humor”, “disclosure statements”), significance (“must read,” “nitpicking”) or its language. And if the tag expresses the resource’s topic, it’s the topic in its relevance to my interests: I might tag a custard pie recipe as “ballistic object.”

Now, along comes folksonomy, the emergence of taxonomy from the bottom up. It can occur if people get some feedback about how others are tagging resources: If I see that 500 people tag photos of San Francisco as “SanFran” and only three tag them “SF,” I will go with “SanFran” if I want my photos to be found, thus adding to that tag’s momentum.

Does this mean that folksonomies will encourage the re-emergence of topics, bottom up? Are we going to be double-minded, applying one tag for the folksonomy so the resource can be found and others that reflect our own interests? ? (If we also start tagging for local folksonomies — our social networks — we may become multi-minded in our tagging.) Are topics dead or are we rebuilding them in our images? [Technorati tags: ]


February 26, 2005


Rael has coined a term: Shufflecasting:

Rather than downloading fully-formed podcast “shows” consisting of talk, music, and assorted sound-effects, I’ve been autofilling my Shuffle with an eclectic mix…

Rather than a “produced” full-blown radio show (the direction in which some podcasting seems headed), shufflecasting is more geek NPR meets Prairie Home Companion meets The Screensavers…

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Geniacs at work

A 1955 Geniacs computer kit for kids 1955 is currently selling at eBay for $232.50, and there are four days left in the auction.

Geniacs kit

I had one of these when I was a lad. You programmed it by placing metal strips on wheels.

I also had a plastic computer that consisted of layers like a lasagna that had tubes you slid over prongs to make them longer (where long=on), and then you shuffled the layers. Yes, the memory is a bit fuzzy, but the computer’s logic was not.

I did not care for either toy. I didn’t like computers until I was typing my wife’s dissertation for her and discovered word processing. [Thanks to Mark Dionne for the link.] [Technorati tags: ]

Marc Abrahams points to a Geniac ad from 1957. The first paragraph:

GENIAC the first electrical brain construction kit is equipped to play tic-tac-toe, cipher and encipher codes, convert from binary to decimal, reason in syllogisms, as well as add, subtract, multiply and divide. Specific problems in a variety of fields–actuarial, policy claim settlement, physics, etc., can be set up and solved with the components. Connections are solderless and are completely explained with templates in the manual. This covers 33 circuits and shows how new ones can be designed.

It cost $19.95.


February 25, 2005

Release 1.0 – Taxonomies and Trees

I wrote the current issue of Esther Dyson’s Release 1.0 newsletter, a looong piece on taxonomies and tagging. Esther has given me permission to post the introduction to the article. It attempts to give an overview of taxonomies, trees, faceted classification, tags and folksonomies. Here’s how it begins:

The narrative that tells of the first man and woman encountering the tree of knowledge focuses on its tempting fruit. But after we took the bite, we apparently looked up and got the idea that knowledge is shaped like the tree’s branching structure: Big concepts contain smaller ones that contain smaller ones yet. Over the millennia, we have fashioned the structures of knowledge in just such tree-like ways, from the departmental organization of universities (liberal arts contains history and history contains ancient Chinese history) to the hierarchy of species. The idea that knowledge is shaped like a tree is perhaps our oldest knowledge about knowledge.

Now autumn has come to the forest of knowledge, thanks to the digital revolution. The leaves are falling and the trees are looking bare. We are discovering that traditional knowledge hierarchies that have served us so well are unnecessarily restricted when it comes to organizing information in the digital world. The principles of organization themselves are changing now that they are being freed from the constraints of the physical world. For example …

Click here to read the rest of the introductory section… [Technorati tags: ]


Google loses S

Gary Googlewhack Stock points out that Google no longer provides automatic links to the definition of search terms that end in S:

Nothing is delicious (11M pages). No one is anxious (6M). This may be because no one has a penis (24M). In apparent response to GOP fiscal irresponsiblity, nothing remains gratis (131M). Some fail to see the obvious (28M), that Genesis (16M) is not in conflict with physics (56M). Alas! (5M)

You know how when you search for, say, anxietyon Google, the light blue bar at the top reports that it’s showing Results 1-100 of about 16,900,00 for anxiety (0.55), and since “anxiety” is a recognized word, there’s a ink to a dictionary definition? If you search for any word that ends with an “s,” as in “anxious,” there’s no link.

Gary speculates, among other possibilites that “At Google’s heart, the regex !^(?i)[a-z]+\s*$ has lost a slash, banning all pluralization!”


Unnamed fame

There have been two problems, both involving veterans. After receiving the big money, Mark Blount has been about 60 percent of the Mark Blount of a year ago. And then there was the resident star, who has played much of the season in a pout…

— Bob Ryan, “Ainge may not be able to wiggle out of this,” Boston Globe, Feb. 25, 2005

The resident star is apparently so famous that he does not need to be named. His absence of namingness signals his fame, so to speak. It’s takes one-namers such as Madonna and Cher one step further, all the way to being a non-namer. Now that’s fame!

I, of course, don’t have any idea who the article is referring to. Presumably, a computer trying to parse this article, even just to index it, is going to have less of an idea.

Here’s where you get to jump in and explain that latent semantic indexing would associate cues such as “star” with other articles where the star is named, and thus computers are smarter than I am and I ought to take my hair-sprouting protoplasm back to the swamp that spawned it and not only that but chrome takes a polish better than my sagging flesh ever did. To which I reply that if computers are so smart, how come they haven’t sent an Arnold-like cyborg from the future and have it assume the reins of government. Yeah, how come? Answer me that, bit-brain-boy!


Prototype blogs

At the Thursday night blogging confab at the Berkman Center, the question of how to define blogs briefly surfaced in a meta way. It reminded me of a page I’ve wanted for a long time, but apparently haven’t wanted enough to build.

The idea is that most living terms are impossible to define cleanly. We do much better by pointing to some examples that everyone agrees “If these aren’t ___s, then nothing is!” (This is part of the rejection of Aristotelianism built on Eleanor Rosch’s work in prototype classification, but that’s an example of a different color.) So, if you wanted to explain to someone what a blog is, what would be a reasonable set of examples to which you could point? These aren’t necessarily the award-winning, big time blogs. In fact, they probably shouldn’t be because, by definition, the award winners aren’t typical. You’d want the list to include a good range of types and styles.

What would you put on a list of prototype blogs that would give a newbie — or a journalist — a good sense of the nature and range of blogs?

BTW, here’s now not to define a blog:

“A blog is a species of interactive electronic diary by means of which the unpublishable, untrammeled by editors or the rules of grammar, can communicate their thoughts via the web.”

This would be slightly amusing if it didn’t come from Michael Gorman, president-elect of the American Library Association, and Dean of Library Services, Madden Library, California State University, Fresno


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