I love the conversations that have emerged recently on folksonomy/ethnoclassification/tagging/ontology (see del.icio.us tag folksonomy for a good collection of them). Of course, i’m particularly a fan of skeptical posts that raise the social consequences flag (thank you Liz and Rebecca). I wanted to bring up a few things about culture that i feel haven’t been really addressed yet. (My apologies if i’ve missed them.)
First, don’t forget Lakoff’s Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. Classification schemes are always culturally dependent based on how people organize information. There is nothing universal about the terms that we use, the relationship between those terms and the meanings behind them. Many terms are contested, used differently by different populations for different reasons and otherwise inconsistent. (Take a look at Raymond Williams’ Keywords if you want to see how different socio-cultural terms are employed over time in Western culture alone.)
What makes the tagging phenomenon utterly fascinating is that there is a collective action component to it. We love to see how people will come to common consensus on relevant terms. But part of what makes it valuable is that, right now, most of the people tagging things have some form of shared cultural understandings. The “in the know” groups using these services are very homogenous and often have shared values and thus offers valuable related links. This helps explain why Rebecca Blood is concerned about the MLK tags - they signify a lack of shared common ground. In tagging, quality is not just about ‘accuracy’, but about what cultural assumptions dominate. This is also the problem that motivated my earlier post on digital xenophobia.
The translation problem alone offers insight into the problems of collective action tagging (see Benjamin). There are tons of words that cannot be simply translated literally both for linguistic and cultural reasons (such as my colleague’s favorite - ohrwurm from German or any number of metaphors). And there are tons of words with multiple and conflicting meanings. This is why reading a translation of something is never the same - it’s not just a matter of linguistic translation, but cultural translation. That’s almost impossible.
Flipped around, the culture of the people tagging says a lot about how they use language that is quite valuable. We might want to see everything with a particular tag using the sense that we mean.
There is also a perspective problem. Think about the tag ‘me’ on Flickr. This is fantastic when we’re organizing stuff for ourselves, but such a tag is inherently dependent on perspective.
These questions have been raised as ones of ‘accuracy’ but they’re not. They’re about perspective and culture. Accuracy is only meaningful if we share the same cultural assumptions. Ironically, we know that culture matters at some level, if only via our collective choice to discuss FOLKsonomy and ETHNOclassification.
Given that we’re dealing with culture and structure, we must also think through issues of legitimacy and power. How are our collective choices enforcing hegemonic uses of language that may marginalize?
Design questions then emerge. How do we deal with conflicting cultural norms as more people are engaged in the act of tagging? How useful are tags across cultures? Do we only gain value from collective-action tagging amongst groups of shared values? If so, how do we implement that? And what are the social consequences for explicitly delimiting culture online?
[Also posted on apophenia]