August 21, 2009

Who is “Everybody”?

One of the most memorable quotes on the subject of ‘categorization’ and the formulation (or not) of ontologies and taxonomies in information-science (and in relation to web-bookmarking and/or tagging), came from Clay Shirky, when he said:

“The Only Group That Can Categorize Everything Is Everybody” – Clay Shirky

The statement is both simple and logical at the same time, and this message is reflected again in Shirky’s eminently worthy 2008 book: ‘Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations’ and previously explored in his July 2005 talk at Oxford, ‘Institutions vs Collaboration’ featured on TEDtalks, [link]. Shirky’s primary message in these publications has been about how the web has had the effect of increasing collaboration outside of institutional models by lowering ‘coordination-costs’, and in fact how the web has facilitated this by embedding ‘cooperation’ into it’s infrastructure. However, the quantum leap in cooperation enabled by the web is still subject to certain ‘bottle-neck’ effects by virtue of the client-server (provider-receiver) dichotomy upon which the web is based.

One of the great levelers on the web however, has been another of the areas of Shirky’s research, and that of course is ‘tagging’. Tagging is so simple to execute that literally ‘everybody’ can do it. However, generally, as far as most people are concerned, tagging is just about labelling stuff within what are still ultimatley web-silos, and the general web population don’t control those silos. However, the inherent tripartite stucture of a tag which potentially informs us a) about the resource being tagged, b) about the identity of the tagger and c) about the interests of the tagger, all combine to define the ternary relationship between them. When this is multiplied by ‘x’ number of tags in a given system, it opens a veritable pandora’s box of application options.

In his 2005 talks ‘Ontology is Overrated’ and ‘Folksonomies & Tags’ Shirky provocatively stated: “…there is no shelf. There is no file system. The links alone are enough.” [link] …and so began an ongoing debate between those who believe that it is the natural role and responsibility of ‘experts’ to classify and categorize information, (the top-downers) and those who believe that prescribing rules and ontologies interfere with a potentially more natural and egalitarian process, (the bottom-uppers).

The application of Shirky’s prophetic statement about the role of ‘everybody’ (which let me say, truly inspires me) in the real world is not only not straight forward, but (I personally believe) is effectively under challenge by (another group of top-downers) the exponents of the ever increasing number of ’standards’ that are being developed by an army of coders and ‘webocrats’, creating (what amounts to) so many endless firmware-updates to de-bug the truly massive virtual operating-system that our web has become.

At the centre (more or less) of this cornucopia of solutions and tweaks lies Tim Berners-Lee’s ‘Semantic-Web’ and its more recent incarnation as ‘Linked Data’. However, in this ecosystem of rules, and rules about rules, we also have: The ‘Resource Description Framework’ RDF (which grew from the ‘Meta Content Framework’ MCF, combined with XML, whereupon Microsoft created ‘Channel Definition Format’ CDF, to revolutionize “push” technology, only to be trumped when the WC3 backed RDF) then we got ‘Web Ontology Language’ OWL, which (according to some) can be trumped by ‘Extensible Stylesheet Language’ XSLT… and, just to be sure, now we’ve got RDFa, to help deal with issues with RDF. As Greg Boulten has opined on his Blog ’’ [link] :

“If you really needed the whole stack for Linked Data to work, you would have a bigger problem on your hands: now you’d have to explain to users that to try Linked Data you need to understand and use RDF, URIs, SPARQL, OWL, and the other pieces of the stack. Good luck with driving adoption that way… Oh, but wait, that’s what has been done so far, with the slow results we know of.” – Greg Boulten

So… how does this all relate to tagging and who is best to categorise ‘everything’? Well… Its ultimately about ‘prescriptive-solutions’ (and I’m thinking mainly of the ’semantic web’ movement here) that are conceived as potentially machine-readable conventions that will somehow help us, by removing dependencies on that unreliable faculty: ‘intuitive human decision making’. – This is where the polarity exists… There are those who believe in prescribing rules and systems to deal with the exponentially expanding web, and those that recognise that an evolutionary process is underway, both in new forms of language creation (emergent semantics) and in the need for alternative ways to deal with this unprecedented explosion of information.

In Folksonomies we have become used to the counter hierarchical process of selection that are displayed in tag-clouds, but being part of this evolution, we are still in the early stages of this change process. As was discussed on AllPeers blog (before their VCs pulled the plug)

“…folksonomies work because they leverage a very efficient natural language processing tool: the human brain. By offloading the task of disambiguation onto the user, folksonomies reduce the need for all of those fiddly niceties like hierarchy that ontologists have traditionally considered necessary.” [link]

So, ‘Who is Everybody?’… and how will ‘everybody’ maintain the promise and power of Clay Shirky’s beautifully simple and self evidently true statement? – I do believe there definitely is a role for technolgy, protocols and systems to help ‘everybody’ do this, but we have to make sure that a clear distinction is drawn between ‘top-down’ prescriptive solutions vs ‘bottom-up’ models which would allow ‘everybody’ to not just be part of the process, but in fact to BE the process.


  1. I agree that we need everybody in general but I think we also need everyone in particular, with its peculiarities, therefore it would be more like things are in reality. Maybe you can use some fuzzy logic to impliement this kind of overlaping of concepts, ideas and forms of thinking

    Comment by marianasoffer — August 23, 2009 @ 1:13 am

  2. Marian, fuzzy-logic is a fascinating tool, and could be useful in certain systems and processes, and I think your comment about “everyone in particular” is actually highly appropriate. Relevance of content to each individual, is only difficult to achieve if you are attempting to apply a ‘remote’ solution, imposed on the user. The ideal solution is quite counter-intuitive to the legacy systems holding sway at this time, so in many ways philosophy ideally needs to drive the technology in respect to these questions now, but it takes time, i.e. to quote Clay Shirky (one last time) from ‘Here Comes Everybody’: “Because social effects lag behind technological ones by decades, real revolutions don’t involve an orderly transition from point A to point B.”

    - Simon Edhouse (@simonedhouse)

    Comment by Administrator — August 23, 2009 @ 3:21 am

  3. Nice summary. I think there’s another element — the political battle among the major vendors. To a large extent what they accept as a standard determines the lens through which we see the network. It’s not top down or bottom up, it’s the warfare of the marketplace.

    Comment by cgerrish — August 26, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

  4. Yes good point…

    Comment by Administrator — August 26, 2009 @ 7:15 pm

  5. If we take Susan Blackmore’s hypothesis to be true i.e. memes are the 2nd replicator and machines are the 3rd replicator, than machine readability will win! :)

    Comment by saqib — April 10, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

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