Tag tag tag

Tom Coates’ interesting post Two cultures of fauxonomies collide has been getting a lot of attention lately, mainly thanks to Dave. There’s a particularly interesting discussion running at Many-to-Many. The discussion has progressed quite rapidly, with several bright and articulate people pitching in to illustrate how Tom’s original insight can be developed. My problem is that I’m not sure what the discussion’s based on. For example, Emil Sotirov writes:

Seemingly, given the freedom of folksonomy, people tend to move from hierarchical “folder” modes of tag interpretation (one-to-many) towards more open “keyword” modes (many-to-many).

Keywords are flat, many-to-many, open; folders are hierarchical, one-to-many, closed. (In short, folders are bad, m’kay?) But what does this really mean? If I think that tags are ‘like’ keywords or that tags are ‘like’ folders, what difference does it actually make?

From Tom’s original piece:
Matt’s concept was quite close to the way tagging is used in del.icio.us – with an individual the only person who could tag their stuff and with an understanding that the act of tagging was kind of an act of filing. My understanding was heavily influenced by Flickr’s approach – which I think is radically different – you can tag other people’s photos for a start, and you’re clearly challenged to tag up a photo with any words that make sense to you. It’s less of a filing model than an annotative one.

Incidentally, “an individual the only person who could tag their stuff”? That’s Technorati rather than del.icio.us, surely?

But anyway – the main question is, what are you actually doing differently if you use a tag as an ‘annotative’ keyword rather than a ‘classifying’ folder? In either case, it seems to me, you’re pulling out a couple of characteristics of an object and using them to lay a trail back to it. The only real difference I can see is that you’d expect to have more ‘keywords’ than objects and fewer ‘folders’ than objects, but I can’t see how this changes the way you actually interact with the tags or the tag-holder services – or the objects, for that matter.

Perhaps I’m just not getting something – all enlightenment is welcome. But I suspect that, in practice, Flickr and del.icio.us and… er, all those other social tagging services… are converging on a model somewhere between ‘keyword’ and ‘folder’. The tag cloud is crucial here. Flickr may start by enabling you to “tag up a photo with any words that make sense to you”, but the tag cloud display “conceals the less popular [tags] and lets recurrence form emergent patterns” (as Tom notes here); it also prompts users to select from previously-used tags if possible. Conversely, the (more rudimentary) tag-cloud display in del.icio.us gives less-used tags more prominence than they had when they were left to scroll off the screen, prompting users to select more widely from previously-used tags. In effect, the tag cloud draws del.icio.us users away from big-tree-of-folders thinking, while also drawing flickr users away from the keyword-pebbledash approach.

[No, that wasn’t my promised post about the Long Tail. (It doesn’t exist, you know.) Yes, I will get round to it, some time.]

One Comment

  1. dave
    Posted 21 July 2005 at 19:54 | Permalink | Reply

    Phil: I’m responding to your post on the Corante thread here because that blog is not taking my post for some reason.

    You say, “rhetoric will never entirely be absent.” I think you’ve got it the wrong way around. I’d say rather that the act of tagging is fundamentally rhetorical, and that “logic will never be entirely absent.” Let’s begin with a non-contraversial function of tagging: It’s a mnemonic device; I tag something in such a way so that I can recall it later, so that I can find it again. It may be that logical relations are useful in this regard, but mnemonics was historically a canon of rhetoric.

    Now let’s consider the history of folksonomies. The “topoi” used by early Greek rhetors were reference works that contained all figures of language one might want to use arranged in such a way that they could be searched handily. Through the 19th century people kept “commonplace books” into which they would copy and paste snippets of information, quotes and ideas they collected on various topics. Topoi and commonplace books were useful primarily as resources for thinking and for writing–their organization schemes were subservient to their purpose as aids for the production of new material, not to any ontological project per se.

    As to the social aspect of tagging (especially prominent in flickr), the moment we begin to talk about how someone tags something for someone else, we are in the middle of issues of “audience.” In other words, right in the middle of what has historically been the province of rhetoric. Logic, on the other hand, has always been indifferent to issues of audience, if not downright hostile towards them.

    Now the formal “taxonomy” is the logician’s dream. A group of experts, who knows the TRUE ONTOLOGY OF THINGS, gets to work out the relations of things and categories, without having to consider what the “crowd” believes, which is, after all, mere “opinion.” If you want an historical perspective on the logician’s estimation of the folksonomy, take a look at Plato’s Phaedrus or Republic. The moment we begin to take the crowd seriously, we are in the middle of rhetoric, right along with Gorgias, Protagoras, and Aristotle.

    In his work titled The Rhetoric, Aristotle explains that what makes a rhetorical argument different from a logical one (in his terms, what makes an enthymeme different from a syllogism), is that the premises used in rhetorical arguments are drawn from phronesis–that is, from practical wisdom or common knowledge about the world that has been accumulated, not by the logician on his mountaintop or in his cave, but by the rabble in the assembly and in the agora; if you like, in the bazaar.

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