My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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issues of culture in ethnoclassification/folksonomy

I love the conversations that have emerged recently on folksonomy/ethnoclassification/tagging/ontology (see del.icio.us tag folksonomy for a good collection of them). Of course, i’m particularly a fan of skeptical posts that raise the social consequences flag (thank you Liz and Rebecca). I wanted to bring up a few things about culture that i feel haven’t been really addressed yet. (My apologies if i’ve missed them.)

First, don’t forget Lakoff’s Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. Classification schemes are always culturally dependent based on how people organize information. There is nothing universal about the terms that we use, the relationship between those terms and the meanings behind them. Many terms are contested, used differently by different populations for different reasons and otherwise inconsistent. (Take a look at Raymond Williams’ Keywords if you want to see how different socio-cultural terms are employed over time in Western culture alone.)

What makes the tagging phenomenon utterly fascinating is that there is a collective action component to it. We love to see how people will come to common consensus on relevant terms. But part of what makes it valuable is that, right now, most of the people tagging things have some form of shared cultural understandings. The “in the know” groups using these services are very homogenous and often have shared values and thus offers valuable related links. This helps explain why Rebecca Blood is concerned about the MLK tags – they signify a lack of shared common ground. In tagging, quality is not just about ‘accuracy’, but about what cultural assumptions dominate. This is also the problem that motivated my earlier post on digital xenophobia.

The translation problem alone offers insight into the problems of collective action tagging (see Benjamin). There are tons of words that cannot be simply translated literally both for linguistic and cultural reasons (such as my colleague’s favorite – ohrwurm from German or any number of metaphors). And there are tons of words with multiple and conflicting meanings. This is why reading a translation of something is never the same – it’s not just a matter of linguistic translation, but cultural translation. That’s almost impossible.

Flipped around, the culture of the people tagging says a lot about how they use language that is quite valuable. We might want to see everything with a particular tag using the sense that we mean.

There is also a perspective problem. Think about the tag ‘me’ on Flickr. This is fantastic when we’re organizing stuff for ourselves, but such a tag is inherently dependent on perspective.

These questions have been raised as ones of ‘accuracy’ but they’re not. They’re about perspective and culture. Accuracy is only meaningful if we share the same cultural assumptions. Ironically, we know that culture matters at some level, if only via our collective choice to discuss FOLKsonomy and ETHNOclassification.

Given that we’re dealing with culture and structure, we must also think through issues of legitimacy and power. How are our collective choices enforcing hegemonic uses of language that may marginalize?

Design questions then emerge. How do we deal with conflicting cultural norms as more people are engaged in the act of tagging? How useful are tags across cultures? Do we only gain value from collective-action tagging amongst groups of shared values? If so, how do we implement that? And what are the social consequences for explicitly delimiting culture online?

[Also posted on M2M]

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7 comments to issues of culture in ethnoclassification/folksonomy

  • issues of culture in ethnoclassification/folksonomy

    I love the conversations that have emerged recently on folksonomy/ethnoclassification/tagging/ontology (see del.icio.us tag folksonomy for a good collection of them). Of course, i’m particularly a fan of skeptical posts that raise the social cons…

  • issues of culture in ethnoclassification/folksonomy

    I love the conversations that have emerged recently on folksonomy/ethnoclassification/tagging/ontology (see del.icio.us tag folksonomy for a good collection of them). Of course, i’m particularly a fan of skeptical posts that raise the social cons…

  • What is “Tag Spam”? Or better, Tag Spam exists?

    Leigh asks So any signs that “tag spam” has started yet? (found because he uses “trust metrics” a keyword to which I’m subscribed in a number of service). Here I ask the same question. It seems very unlikely that web…

  • What’s additionally interesting to me is the second order information that is created by the tags. Forgetting for a second the words themselves, but taking a look at what any particular individual tags with a particular tag and grouping those things together, you get clusters of stuff. Then you look at what clusters of stuff those things are in for everyone else. It’s like a multi-dimensional collaborative filter. So instead of focusing on the fact that MLK means a different thing for different people, why don’t we just assume it. So if you find someone tagging all of their MLK photos and links with a particular tag… then you find someone with the same pattern in Japan, you can figure out that they are both 1) interested in the same thing, 2) are using synonyms, 3) might be interested in things that the other is tagging with the same tag. I’m not sure we want to build some mega-ontology, but rather figure out what this means for organizing information on the Net.

    Not fully fleshed out, but just a thought.

  • Folksonomy : link :: hierarchy : barrier

    I’ve been drilling down through the plentiful discussions on folksonomy, tagging, and controlled vocabularies – oh my! Suffice it to say – there’s a lot going on.
    I had drafted a bunch of thoughts on this, none of them complete or eminently grokka…

  • Art imitates tags

    There seems to have been an explosion of folksonomy-related discussion, including Peter Merholz on the art/life (chicken/egg ?) aspect of tags: These tags are no longer simply keywords that describe…

  • summer mood of mobtagging

    mediamatic plans a workshop on the technic and impact of mobtagging under the subtitle ‘Collective Intelligence through the exchange of Metadata’ Mobtagging is called “a revolution in the use of the web.” The expectations are high: it makes inform…