Tuesday, May 31, 2005


John Dvorak's been writing about computers since the early days of PCs. Does he like to be controversial? Sure. That's his thing. And is he sometimes WAY off base? That too. But that more or less comes with the territory when you've been writing for a long time about a wide span of topics--at least some of which you aren't exactly an expert in.

Dvorak's been heating up the Linux zealots of late with his reportage of the PJ-O'Gara tiff. Seems pretty accurate, if a bit over the top. However, it's his latest critique of "tags" that really caught my eye. With all due respect to all the fans of high-tech "blogosphere" linkages, but John nails the hype.
The "folksonomy" notion is the bloggers' last hope of invention, although it's a rewrite of the prebubble "semantic Web" technology at best. And it too is doomed to failure. The utopianism and idealism that exist in the online societies ignore the real problem with tags, metatags, übertags, folksonomies, and the like. This is because they honestly think that most people are goodhearted. The online world, because of its anonymity, encourages bad behavior. "You suck!" is a common post, and it would be the number-one tag if tagging ever became popular. Then would come the tags about "Online Casino!" One site promoting folksonomies is the darling of the bloggers: Flickr.com—an excellent photo-sharing site where being in perpetual beta is a marketing tool.

Interestingly, the ever-insightful Clay Shirky seems to at least sort of endorse the idea of tags in a recent post although he has skewered the "semantic web" in the past. I suspect that there's a bit of a definitional issue going on here. But that's the problem isn't it? When tags become both everything and essentially nothing (i.e. keywords), they lose much of their significance.

My current feeling is that extensive linking and the fact that digital documents have no need for a single physical place means that keywords are preferable to rigid hierarchies. But to extrapolate from there to deep physical meaning for those keywords across individuals and communities seems a bit much. Keywords (or tags if you prefer) yes. Folksonomies, no.

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