Alex Wright

Tags as ideology

April 20, 2005

Gene Smith has written an excellent critique of Clay Shirky's Ontology is Overrated thesis. While I'm as burned out as anyone by now with windbagging about tags and folksonomies, I do think Gene makes several refreshingly new points here. In particular, he poses an adroit argument as to why bold pronouncements about the significance of tagging are so troubling: the underlying trend towards ideology.

At times it's been hard to separate out the practical enthusiasm for tags and folksonomies (which I share) from the ideological enthusiasm which suggests that tags are the One True Way. Clay has been leading the ideological charge and, frankly, the information architecture community has been struggling to respond to it. Meanwhile, his views are accepted by some as the new orthodoxy of classification. So, how did such a practical little idea - tagging - give rise to Jeremiads like �Everything is Miscellaneous,� "Webogeny recapitulates ontogeny," and �Ontology is Overrated�? Provocative statements like that make for good Newsweek copy, but I believe they overstate the practical worth of these tools to real users. As Tim Bray suggests, the question we should really be asking is this: Are tags useful? Are there any questions you want to ask, or jobs you want to do, where tags are part of the solution, and clearly work better than old-fashioned search? I really want to believe that tagging is big, a game-changer, but the longer I go on asking this question and not getting an answer, the more nervous I get. This fundamantal question - are tags useful? - seems to get lost in the ideological shuffle. And the notion that they signal the imminent decline of hierarchical systems seems to me a leap unsupported by the facts - and, as Smith points out, reminiscent of the rhetorical excesses of the dotcom era. Shirky's response to the question of whether tags are useful has been to sidestep the question, by arguing that they are a forced move; in other words, that it's pointless to waste time debating the merits of tags because they are, simply, inevitable. Smith nicely refutes that argument: This is not to say that Clay is wrong about tags being a useful, even vital, way of organizing certain kinds of information. The trouble is that most of the practical objections to folksonomies--as well as the arguments for a peaceful co-existence between classification schemes--have been met with the forced move response.

The argument from inevitability is a great way to simultaneously sidestep your opponent's objections while confirming your own assumptions. It's also good for keeping the discussion in the abstract rather than concrete. Because it's a forced move, there's no point asking why both Amazon and Wikipedia use categories. Or why does the failure to organize the whole web into a hierarchical taxonomy (like the Yahoo Directory) mean that taxonomies are useless? Or, like, do you seriously mean that tagging will replace all other kinds of categorization? Across the whole freaking web? Surely not.
This, I think, gets to the root of the issue. Ideas unmoored from the realities of human behavior are the stuff of ideology. And ideologies have a way of turning into bad news (see also: Marxism). So I think it's important to ground these discussions in the human dimension of real people using software; and to apply a healthy dose of skepticism in the face of ideological pronouncements.

> Gene Smith, Market Populism in the Folksonomies Debate

File under: Semantic Web

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