In his comments on Is Tagging A Disruptive Innovation, Simon Edhouse raises a good point that merits some further discussion. Simon says,
“Many different technologies, platforms or applications may be ‘potential’ disruptions, but may fall by the wayside, change, or join forces with other forces and be transformed and possibly end up ‘disrupting’. But I think we all know that a real ‘disruptive innovation’ needs to not cause a little disruption, but rather have a seismic affect on industries, in the “IT ecosystem” as Joe noted.”
Theories and models describing innovation, the diffusion of innovation, technology change, and technology adoption abound. But I think there are three characteristics of disruptive innovations that bear on the question of tagging.
First, *innovations are only disruptive when they change an existing ecosystem.* The retractable cup holder in cars is a good example of an innovation that wasn’t disruptive. Did anyone – besides the dashboard cup tray people (and how many of them were there anyway…?) – go out of business after cup holders became standard in cars?
Contrast this with the introduction of the personal computer. To millions of individuals and small businesses, the personal computer was simply new: it was a new opportunity to purchase computing capability for a class of needs and situations not addressed by mainframes and minicomputers. But to Data General, Digital Equipment Corporation, and the other leaders of the thriving minicomputer ecosystem, the PC was a genuinely disruptive innovation.
Second, *disruptive innovations become visible only in retrospect*. Three separate events are necessary: first, a change in ecosystem; second, recognition of that change by the parties affected; finally, a change in the framing used to understand that ecosystem by all parties. Clayton’s description of packet switching [great example!] fully supports this understanding, so I’ll share it again.
…Packet-switching is a great example of an innovation whose value / impact / disruptive nature became apparent over time. In fact, most of the telecom industry regarded packet-switch based things as irrelevant because of the low quality. But low quality also often simply means “low cost” when judged by a different standard of reference.
Third, *a disruptive innovation is often something transposed or transplanted from another frame of reference*. Cubism, Fauvism and other Modernist styles and movements reflected the influence of transplanted Asian, African and other newly recognized art cultures on Western artists and their work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Similarly, the Dada and Surrealist movements have roots in the literary and artistic exploration of concepts and ideas from the field of Psychology.
How does this bear on tagging?
First, is the growth of tagging disrupting any existing ecosystems? Specifically, has tagging seismically affected the established IT or information management realms, the two existing ecosystems currently seen as the most likely candidates for disruption by tagging?
The consensus from the tagging community of interest is “No, but stay tuned.” Gene smith noted recently that the good people of LibraryThing are innovating their product / service offerings in ways that could directly impact the business of library catalog management, and the customer experience of a library catalog. While LibraryThing is clearly innovative, it’s not yet disrupted the information management ecosystem. Likewise, the new social bookmarking offerings from leading enterprise portal vendors reflect incremental incorporation of new capabilities, rather than wholesale shifts in the portal landscape. Flickr isn’t showing pictures of crowds of unemployed metadata management professionals standing on sidewalks outside former workplaces, holding signs that read, “Noteconomicallyviable“.
Second, is tagging disruptive in retrospect, in a way that indicates changing frames of reference? I think the answer to this is a qualified “Yes”. Tagging is in retrospect disruptive, but only for a small community. For David Weinberger and other early adopters who propose frames for a living, tagging has already passed through the two stages of disruption and recognition, and is in the midst of the third stage where it becomes part of a new or revised frame of reference.
However, for the rest of the world, though many people now tag on a daily basis (at least in limited contexts), tagging is not part of a new frame of reference. Tagging remains ‘below the cultural waterline’ in this stage of it’s growth curve.As Simon says, “To speculate whether ‘tagging’ by itself is a ‘disruptive innovation’ is, I’m sure, premature.”
Third, is tagging genuinely new, or is tagging a transplant from an existing frame? I believe social tagging is new to most frames of reference, and not a transplant. Tagging in the sense of applying labels meant to serve as some sort of metadata to a collection of resources – for a group or individual – is a very old idea. But explicitly social tagging that results in the collective creation of clouds of tags seems definitively new*.
That makes approximately one and one-half matches out of three. Hitting .500 is outstanding in baseball, but I don’t believe it is enough to qualify tagging as a disruptive innovation.
*If you consider social tagging as a straightforward transplanting of social media mechanisms and concepts to the established realms of metadata and information management, then you’re clearly a member of the small community of people that thinks about both social media and information management on a regular basis. Compared to the number of people who think about major league sports on a regular basis, this is not a large group, which takes us back to the idea that tagging is disruptive only retrospectively, and for a select community.