Cloud Street

Thursday, July 21, 2005

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 - 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, 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 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 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 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.]

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Cloud A-Z

David Gratton (found via Thomas) argues that all communities are communities of interest. He argues - I think correctly - that what appear to be, for example, professional, demographic or geographic 'communities' are created and maintained through shared interests and shared activity around those interests. Where those interests and that activity are lacking, what's left isn't a community but a statistical abstraction masquerading as reality. What's particularly interesting about this is that it destroys the notion of a 'virtual community' as something new and interesting; insofar as it's a community, a 'virtual community' is a community of interest, like all the others. Technology may facilitate the creation of communities which wouldn't have been created before, but the community itself is nothing new.

Here are a few further thoughts (initially written as a comment on David's site).

You could take it a bit further by saying that a community (of whatever flavour) is a process rather than an object or an achieved state - community is something that people produce and reproduce by doing stuff together (including talking). Once you've said that community only exists as the continuing aggregate of its members' interactions, you can start asking questions about those interactions - how frequent are they? how are they structured: does everyone talk to a single central 'hub', does everyone talk to everyone, are there 'daisy-chains'? do they produce or redistribute anything identifiable - the physical necessities of life, or money, or information, or social status - or is it all about sociality and shooting the breeze? The answers to questions like those would say a lot about the shape of the community, which in turn would enable us to ask some interesting questions about the impact of 'virtuality', and the conditions under which 'virtual communities' are more or less viable than their face-to-face counterparts.

An interesting aspect of this model of community is the significance of talk: conversation is the bedrock, the basis on which everything else happens. (I'm reluctant to call it a medium: partly because of the concerns Dave highlighted back here; partly, relatedly, because that suggests that conversation is always a carrier for a signal, that there is always something else going on. This, I think, is profoundly misleading. We're social beings: a large part of what we do, how we live, is social interaction, more or less as an end in itself.) What the technologies we associate with 'virtual community' do is, essentially, to make it easier to spend more of the time talking to more people, albeit in some oddly formalised ways. Some of the interesting questions about 'virtuality' are questions about this strange pairing of talk overload and talk formalisation.

What does this have to do with clouds? One idea I've been playing with is that the natural state of knowledge is to be 'cloudy', because it's produced within continuing interactions within groups: knowledge is an emergent property of conversation, you could say. What the argument about 'community' suggests is that every community has its own knowledge-cloud - that the production and maintenance of a knowledge-cloud is one way that a community defines itself. The question then is whether existing technologies enable communities to do anything useful with their 'clouds', or if the services are still too attenuated - or too overloaded.

(I'll get back to the Long Tail soon, hopefully. It doesn't exist, you know.)