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« Spolsky on Blog Comments: Scale matters | Main | responding to critiques of my essay on class »

July 25, 2007

Tagmashes from LibraryThing

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Posted by David Weinberger

im Spalding at LibraryThing has introduced a new wrinkle in the tagosphere…and wrinkles are welcome because they pucker space in semantically interesting ways. (Block that metaphor!)

At LibraryThing, people list their books. And, of course, we tag ‘em up good. For example, Freakonomics has 993 unique tags (ignoring case differences), and 8,760 total tags. Now, tags are of course useful. But so are subject headings. So, Tim has come up with a clever way of deriving subject headings bottom up. He’s introduced “tagmashes,” which are (in essence) searches on two or more tags. So, you could ask to see all the books tagged “france” and “wwii.” But the fact that you’re asking for that particular conjunction of tags indicates that those tags go together, at least in your mind and at least at this moment. Library turns that tagmash into a page with a persistent URL. The page presents a de-duped list of the results, ordered by interestinginess, and with other tagmashes suggested, all based on the magic of statistics. Over time, a large, relatively flat set of subject headings may emerge, which, subject to further analysis, could get clumpier and clumpier with meaning.

You may be asking yourself how this differs from saved searches. I asked Tim. He explained that while the system does a search when you ask for a new tagmash, it presents the tagmash as if it were a topic, not a search. For one thing, lists of search results generally don’t have persistent URLs. More important, to the user, tagmash pages feel like topic pages, not search results pages.

And you may also be asking yourself how this differs from a folksonomy. While I’d want to count it as a folksonomic technique, in a traditional folksonomy (oooh, I hope I’m the first to use that phrase!), a computer can notice which terms are used most often, and might even notice some of the relationships among the terms. With tagmashes, the info that this tag is related to that one is gleaned from the fact that a human said that they were related.

LibraryThing keeps innovating this way. It’s definitely a site to watch.

Comments (4) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


1. Brad Collins on July 25, 2007 5:23 PM writes...

So in effect this is simply a faceted tag system.

I've been waiting for and others to offer this for a long time and wondered why no one had.

Hasn't anyone heard of the Bliss Catalog system or the Colon Classification system, the Facet Markup Language or even Topic Maps?

Faceted systems are as old as the hills and a very powerful way of organizing and finding information.

The next step of course is to leverage faceted tags so that they can be used to disambiguate between terms -- so if you search for paris you could be asked if you meant paris+france or paris+hilton+celebrity, paris+texas, paris+troy etc ?

I used three tag facets for paris+hilton+celebrity because paris+hilton could map to the Hilton Hotel in Paris France.

Then we have the beginnings of a means of mapping these tag clusters to taxonomies and authority records so that paris+hilton+celebrity is mapped to an authority record for "Paris Whitney Hilton (Am. Celebrity; 1981- )"

I see tags as being the raw material used to catalog new material which will later be formally cataloged using taxonomies and authority data. Sort of like the quotes written on slips of paper and collected for creating entries in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Tags are part of the Conversation, while authorities and Terms in a taxonomy are for the Library which provides the context for the conversation.

Last year I presented a paper at the Extreme Markup Language Conference in Montreal called "Sticky Stuff" which introduces an XML Framework which combines many of these ideas together. Google for Extreme Markup and Sticky Stuff and it should turn up.

We'll be launching our first service built on this technology later this year.

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2. Gene on July 25, 2007 5:56 PM writes...

I have a half-cooked blog post about awesomeness of tagmashes. One of the best features is the ability to "discriminate" against or exclude tags from the mash (by using -france or --france). This is, I think, the first implementation of anti-tags.

Tagging innovations have stalled at so many other sites, but LT keeps on coming up with great ideas.

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3. Gregor J. Rothfuss on July 25, 2007 7:50 PM writes...

You can do that with too, although it does not do the sorting / deduping:

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4. tones on July 26, 2007 11:03 AM writes...

I would be interested in getting your thoughts on the relationship between tagging/tagmashes and traditional indexing (as in hardcopy book indices). Unix had indexing software since the 70's and there is an art to clean non-cluttered indexing, but it seems to me that tagging can take this to a new level, since the indexing occurs as the writing happens rather than at the end. You mention of the [Freakonomics tagging triggered this...]

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