September 1, 2007

The Tagging Growth Curve

A recent flurry of postings from the tagerati on the state of tagging follows up on the idea broached by Phillip Kelleher, and then addressed here in previous posts; to wit, tagging is in a bit of a lull, if not an authentic spate of the doldrums.

A quick listing of postings from the thread:

I’ll assume you’ve read all these worthwhile pieces, and move on to discuss what seems most interesting about both the state of tagging, and what the above interpretations of that state imply about how we think of the intertwined phenomena of technology and culture change in general.

The apparently irregular growth and spread of tagging is simply example of the real nature of how innovations spread. Professional analysts and other meaning makers tend to draw smooth graphs to depict these things. But in reality, natural systems (and the tagging / technology landscape is a legitimate ecosystem) are noisy, cyclical, chaotic, complex, fuzzy, non-linear, and unpredictable. They only appear to follow smooth curves at a high level of abstraction, or a low level of resolution.

When the subject is growth, adoption, and change for tagging, a better comparison to use when gauging status (and thus implied progress) is punctuated equilibrium, the idea “that evolution jumps between stability and relative rapidity”. [Yes, this is also only an approximate frame for tagging. With that noted, I still believe it is better than those frames in current use.]

To set the stage for a look at how this maps to the growth of tagging, I’ll quote Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldrige on punctuated equilibrium:

In summarizing the impact of recent theories upon human concepts of nature’s order, we cannot yet know whether we have witnessed a mighty gain in insight about the natural world (against anthropocentric hopes and biases that always hold us down), or just another transient blip in the history of correspondence between misperceptions of nature and prevailing social realities of war and uncertainty. Nonetheless, contemporary science has massively substituted notions of indeterminacy, historical contingency, chaos and punctuation for previous convictions about gradual, progressive, predictable determinism.

These transitions have occurred in field after field; Kuhn’s celebrated notion of scientific revolutions is, for example, a punctuational theory for the history of scientific ideas. Punctuated equilibrium, in this light, is only palaeontology’s contribution to a Zeitgeist, and Zeitgeists, as (literally) transient ghosts of time, should never be trusted. Thus, in developing punctuated equilibrium, we have either been toadies and panderers to fashion, and therefore destined for history’s ashheap, or we had a spark of insight about nature’s constitution. Only the punctuational and unpredictable future can tell.

From Punctuated Equilibrium Comes of Age by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge
Applying the frame of punctuated equilibrium to the growth of tagging implies a very differently shaped growth curve.

Tagging Growth Curve

This illustration shows a growth curve with several stages of rapid growth, followed by plateaus of comparative stability. Each stage is a complete cycle of diffusion throughout a community: Pioneers, Enthusiasts, Commercial Innovators, the Commercial Market. Technologies begin “below the cultural waterline”, meaning that they are not part of the generally known or accepted constellation of how things work, and move “above the waterline” to awareness and acceptance.

Boundaries formed by common interests, goals, levels of expertise, or expected investment separate the communities from one another. Each successive community is larger in size. The criteria for successful adoption and diffusion change with each community. Generally, the entry cost thresholds for members of a given community to adopt the technology will become lower, meaning less need for specialized knowledge, or substantial time or or money investments. Of course, this simply means that different actors within successive communities bear investment costs in different proportions. In the pioneer days, everyone “pitches in”. As adoption proceeds across community boundaries, relative equality of participation in innovation – and thus cost sharing – declines.

If you have a commercial perspective – meaning you either want to make money on tagging, or you want someone else to figure out the difficult bits for you and just what they come up with – the goal is to bring the technology “above the cultural waterline”. Crossing this threshold means successful commercialization and profit for those who invest to lower barriers for as successive communities.

Note, it is during the plateaus that innovation occurs. These intervals that sometimes feel like doldrums are the periods when serious minded people are quietly tinkering, building things, and circulating half-complete alphas to friends, colleagues, and thought leaders within their respective communities.

It is during the spikes that the members of the next and larger community adopt the new, refined technology.

What does this mean for tagging? More specifically, how should we understand the state of tagging with this model as a guide?

First, tagging is definitely past the Pioneer stage, when only a few even knew or heard of it. The burst of tag mania that began a few years ago (and is now, in retrospect, clearly over) marked the close of this phase, and the beginning of visible experimentation amongst Enthusiasts. Yes, thanks to vastly lowered design and development costs, organizations are often enthusiasts. Think of the ever-multiplying menagerie of social bookmarking tools that debuted in 2005 and 2006.

Second, tagging is in transition from the stage of experimental exploration by the Enthusiasts, to being legitimately productized, or transformed by money-making organizations – the Commercial Innovators – into something that can be sold for a profit. The recent eWeek demo of not one but *four* enterprise tagging tools from leading vendors BEA, Cogenz, Connectbeam, and IBM, shows this quite clearly.

As long as our current models of adoption and change hold true (and there are good reasons to think these fundamental modes of production are changing), tagging will follow two paths to varying degrees. The first path leads tagging to become commercialized as a recognized part of the technology ecosystem, in which case we can expect to see all the customary signs of productization and the Commercial Market such as packages, vendors, integrators, public release schedules, service tiers, big-ticket invoices, etc. The second path leads tagging to open source legitimacy, with ongoing commitment from a hybrid community of developers and users, and a permanent place in the open source infrastructure. A quick survey of the open source community shows several tagging projects underway, at varying levels of activity.

My current prediction is that tagging will progress along both paths for the next 12 months, pursuing commercialization under the aegis of existing enterprise solutions, while the open source community comes to some sort of consensus on the level of effort tagging needs or warrants. Looking at things from the macroscale, we should check in about a year…

2 Comments

  1. “…it is during the plateaus that innovation occurs”.

    Joe, I thought that observation was very insightful. But one thing to add. The “two paths” you identify, chart trajectories already evident and so, only imply incremental growth.

    Comment by Simon Edhouse — September 4, 2007 @ 4:51 pm

  2. Diffusion of innovation is a very social process, and it seems to me that this post has entirely missed that salient aspect. Is there a reason for that?

    I would also like to ask why a model built for describing biological evolution is used here to describe a very social process, the diffusion of innovations, rather than the well-known and tested Technology Adoption Lifecycle?

    Comment by KatB — September 4, 2007 @ 7:36 pm

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