Thursday, July 7, 2005

Folksonomies vs generated categorizations

Several friends have been pointing me at for quite a while now, which has led me to give some thought to folksonomies.

I'm reminded of a talk at the Web2.0 conference in which Google was demonstrating a research project that performs auto-categorization of search results. The thrust was that when you do a search, rather than just return a flat list of links, Google would examine the context of the search terms within the resulting pages in order to ascertain the category of use. That is, "bismuth" can be a metal or a ship. So Google would return "metal" and "ship" from your search of "bismuth", and you could select the category you meant to get a more precise result.

Folksonomies (aka are really interesting from the point of view of enabling an architecture of participation around categorization, but will result in a somewhat colloquial categorization on which subsequent viewers can't truly depend. At best. I mean, if we listen to George Carlin ("Toledo Window Box"), we might imagine some folks will tag with "bush", some with "hemp", some with "boo", some with "smoke", some with "weed", some with "guage", some with "grass", some with "tea", some with ... you get the idea. We wind up with a number of variously disjoint islands referring to the same concept. And because the terms are colloquial, what I mean by 'tea' won't be the same as what you mean by 'tea', and you will undoubtably be surprised and amused when you visit some places I've tagged thus.

A folksonomie isn't - can't be - very authoritative. This is probably what Blaise Cronin was referring to: "Undoubtedly, these are the same individuals who believe that the free-for-all, communitarian approach of Wikipedia is the way forward. Librarians, of course, know better." Free-for-all classification is, one suspects, precisely the problem the Dewey Decimal Classification System was designed to address.

All this sets up something of a competition between Google category extraction and It'll be fun to watch it play out.

Tuesday, July 5, 2005

DIY magazines

Blaise Cronin* seems confused.
Lately, I’ve been wandering around Blogland, and I’m struck by the narcissism and banality of so many personal blogs, of which, if the statistics are to believed, there are millions. ... One wonders for whom these hapless souls blog.

Though he admits
Blogs can keep stories alive, bring them to the surface and propel them into the media mainstream. Take note: a new communicative dynamic is at work in the public sphere.

He closes with:
Undoubtedly, these are the same individuals who believe that the free-for-all, communitarian approach of Wikipedia is the way forward. Librarians, of course, know better.

He's missed making his point apparently by being too concerned with the supply side and not the consumption. He should be talking about the ability of information consumers to create their own magazines.

Many have commented on self-publishing as a democratizer (yup, I'm bastardizing the language again). Blogs, mp3, and other technical advances are reducing the cost of publishing to the point where we mere individuals can publish without the permission of some cigar-smoking executive someplace. It is a great liberator, but it leaves us with the million-monkeys problem. A million monkeys will no doubt produce Shakespeare, but the trick becomes to find the Shakespeare in the volume of material produced.

Librarians, publishers and record companies are filters of information. They choose and organize information to make it more accessible. Because they all try to serve a broad audience, they create filters that aim for a certain breadth. In principle anyway, but more on that in a moment. Without librarians and editors, we use aggregators and Favorites that we set up ourselves to gather information we may want to read.

In effect, we create our own magazine-analogues. DIY magazines.

The challenge in self-selecting content for our private magazines (that is, setting up our own aggregators) is that we can narrowly focus our attention on points of view that we appreciate. How many of us want to read authors we disagree with? With mass-market magazines we can choose to not read an article after seeing the title, or perhaps a call-out box of some sort. We get part of the message anyway, or at least know the message exists.

DIY magazines are our own filters of what content to even become aware of. This can increase the divide between different ideological groups as those groups only read those who think as they do and fail to pull any balancing points of view into their own magazine. Rather than finding common ground, they propel their opinions to extremes by never reading contrary voices. Little groups become their own apparent majorities (at least to themselves) as "everyone says" whatever they want to hear.

Not that there are that many contrary voices anymore anyway. Media consolidation has left us with a few companies (editors in fact), all with similar goals and ideals, controlling our information channels. Read or listen to media outlets around the world (or even just Britain) and you hear many interesting stories about America that somehow American media singularly (pun intended) fail to present. Thank [insert politically correct deity here] for self-publishing.

BTW, Cronin is Indiana University Dean and Rudy Professor of Information Science. I'd be far more impressed if he used this pulpit (well, Chair) to discuss media consolidation vs issues of choice and democracy in a self-publishing world. That is, how to create something better using new technologies, rather than dismiss that which is new out of hand.

PS. Here are a few interesting books in this area. If you look at Breaking The News, be sure to check out the review by Barron Laycock. As I was writing today, I encountered the following quote that provides interesting colour for my point above, from a review of Rich Media, Poor Democracy (emphasis mine):

If your politics lie anywhere to the right of Ralph Nader's, in other words, don't come to this book looking for validation. But for a stimulating, nuanced, and rigorously researched presentation of the case for overhauling the current media regime, look no further.