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May 16, 2005
Ontology Is Overrated: Social advantages in tagging
This spring, I gave a pair of talks on opposite coasts on the subject of categorization and tagging. The first was entitled Ontology Is Overrated, given at the O’Reilly ETech conference in March. Then, in April I gave a talk at IMCExpo called Folksonomies & Tags: The rise of user-developed classification.
I’ve just put up an edited concatenation of those two talks, coupled with invaluable editorial suggestions from Alicia Cervini. It’s called Ontology is Overrated — Categories, Links, and Tags. Though much of it is not about social software per se, I try to extend the argument that the ‘people infrastucture’ hidden in traditional classification systems is an Achilles’ heel for systems that have to operate at internet scale, and that the logic of tagging overcomes that weakness:
DSM-IV, the 4th version of the psychiatrists’ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, is a classic example of an classification scheme that works because of these characteristics [of the user base]. DSM IV allows psychiatrists all over the US, in theory, to make the same judgment about a mental illness, when presented with the same list of symptoms. There is an authoritative source for DSM-IV, the American Psychiatric Association. The APA gets to say what symptoms add up to psychosis. They have both expert cataloguers and expert users. The amount of ‘people infrastructure’ that’s hidden in a working system like DSM IV is a big part of what makes this sort of categorization work.
This ‘people infrastructure’ is very expensive, though. One of the problem users have with categories is that when we do head-to-head tests — we describe something and then we ask users to guess how we described it — there’s a very poor match. Users have a terrifically hard time guessing how something they want will have been categorized in advance, unless they have been educated about those categories in advance as well, and the bigger the user base, the more work that user education is.
More at Ontology is Overrated — Categories, Links, and Tags.
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