Friday, November 17th, 2006

Arguing against tags

I just read the short “Beneath the Metadata: Some Philosophical Problems with Folksonomy” by Elaine Peterson (D-Lib, Nov. 2006), which demonstrates that “A traditional classification scheme will consistently provide better results to information seekers [than a folksonomy].”

I hardly know where to begin, but take this idea:

“[I]f users can continuously add tags to articles, at some point it is likely that the whole system will become unusable. A folksonomic system threatens to undermine its own usefulness.”

The reasoning is that, as more tags are added, the number of wrong tags will incease. More bad tags mean less usefulness, eventually sliding all the way to complete uselessness—our old friend, the map of China that is the size of China, gets a mention. But tags are deployed statistically where possible, not by the one-for-one correspondence of a card-catalog subject heading. All arguments in favor of tags and all significant efforts to find and order information with tags (eg., Del.icio.us, LibraryThing, Flickr, CiteULike) are predicated on the heavy use of algorithms and statistics. This is a key part of the argument for tags, but Peterson’s article doesn’t mention it.

Imagine an argument against subject headings with a similar deficiency of key information—”LCSHs won’t work because most of us live too far away to visit the Library of Congress regularly.” I don’t think this misunderstanding is any less basic. Once you factor in statistics you’ll understand that as tag density increases, it becomes easier to spot and discount noise, not harder. If the census visited just one house in Maine, it might decide state residents were all Aleutian Islanders. As they visit more, the chance of coming to that conclusion swiftly vanishes.

I need to decide how to approach this stuff. I do not have, and never will have an MLS. This is a real disadvantage. There are also political minefields to be negotiated. When you’re in a discipline you know whom you can safely argue with, and whom you can’t.

I was contacted by an academic publisher today, interested to find out if I had a book in me. A proposal to discuss user-contributed metadata, particularly tags, in the library catalog did not prove interesting. I had meant to bow out anyway—I have no time!—but being refused lit a fire under me. Someone needs to write a good book on the topic. If not me, who? All I need are a dozen more plane trips without wifi. Fortunately or unfortunately, it looks like I’ll get that.

PS: I’m going to see Abby (and John Blyberg) talk tomorrow at a NELINET event, “OPAC 2.0: Reinventing the Library Catalog.” I’m thinking I’ll tape her talk on my MacBook. I wish the iSight camera faced outward. As it is, I’ll have to film myself reacting—pensive! amused! shocked! itchy!

Update: The article is similarly (if more politely) panned on Dystmesis. The blogger also wrote a paper on LibraryThing’s tagging, which I’ll blog soon.

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