Converging metadata and emerging ontologies
I shouldn't be quoting that much, but I guess you can forgive someone with a trojan flu for lack of summarisation :)
In a great post, Metadata for the masses (via Many-to-Many), Peter Merholz advocates free tagging of documents as opposed to choosing tags from inflexible top-down classification systems, which often force users to view the world in potentially unfamiliar ways. I tend to agree with that from my experience of taxonomies, which often become obsolete within two years. Then Peter writes about the limitations of free tagging:
Clearly, such tagging systems are not a panacea; they present many potential drawbacks. With no one controlling the vocabulary, users develop multiple terms for identical concepts. For example, if you want to find all references to New York City on Del.icio.us, you'll have to look through "nyc," "newyork," and "newyorkcity."
That's were ontologies come in handy. They give a community of people the ability to develop a common meta-classification model that sits on top of existing ones and bridges them together. An ontology can define "nyc", "newyork" and "newyorkcity" as synonyms, define "Time Square" as included in "nyc" etc. See for example Arisem, who are doing a good job there. In a sense, ontologies allow communities to build a common language from the ground up, which is essential in knowledge creating environment. Top-down norms can be introduced later, when language can be "industrialized" for larger communities.
I have mixed feelings about ontologies... From one side, they could be really useful. Next to connecting metadata from different people or communities ontologies could be used to connect data from different systems (e.g. your weblog and del.icio.us tags). And, of course, one could imagine all kinds of great things with inference rules (always wonder if I picked up the right meaning of the term from my colleagues ;).
From another side, ontology development could be complex and costly, so I'm always wondering if it's worth it.
This doesn't mean that we can't think of ways to support converging metadata and emerging ontologies.
Converging metadata could be a result of social pressure.
It can be done as in k-collector where people can select from the list of existing topics (their own and others) or add their own. Or as in nutr.itio.us by choosing del.icio.us tags of others for a link you are about to add.
This approach can help cases like nyc/newyork/newyorkcity, where we deal with different ways of writing the same tag. For example, after finding out that majority of del.icio.us users used visualization and not visualisation I changed s into z in my own tags.
Next to it we can think of emergent ontologies.
Ages ago Liz Lawley described how relations you can do it with del.icio.us:
Add a site to your del.icio.us bookmarks, and then look to see who else has added it. What descriptive tags did they use for it? As an example, here are the current links to Metacrap in the del.icio.us system. I used the terms metadata and semweb. Other terms used include taxonomy, ontology, ia, humanFactor, and xml.
Funny enough, del.icio.us does it now automatically, but you can see it only for some posts, so I was surprised by the discovery.
So, check my links on aggregation, middle column, lower part - it shows other users who bookmarked same links and tags they used (rss, tool_rss, feed, meta, syndication, atom).
Of course, you need a critical mass of tagged links to do it and, of course, quality varies, but just think how much you can do with something like this. For example:
- have "raw" ontologies that could be good enough for some purposes and reworked manually for those where more precision is needed
- do "translations" of tags (e.g. my 'aggregation' is your 'rss')
- find like-minded people
- find areas of agreement (shared language/tagging) and disagreement (totally different tags) in a community
Side note: as an alternative to folksonomies, from Peter Merholz
Ethnoclassification, to the best of my knowledge, was coined by Susan Leigh Star for her Digital Libraries conference workshop "Slouching Toward Infrastructure."