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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questions of classification (a response to Clay)

Clay’s right – i’m a huge skeptic, although i don’t attribute it to the academy at all. My first reaction to hype is and always was critique (unless, of course, i’m doing the hyping). This has resulted in me always ::raising eyebrows:: over everything from the *best* bands to “i just met the best girl in the world” stories.

I’m not actually in disagreement with Clay about classification – i am, after all, in a librarian school. My first indoctrination was “classification is impossible – here are a bazillion techniques that we use to try to get better schemas.” So, when i critique folksonomy, it is not in comparison to formal structures of classification. My critical reaction comes from any and all concerns that folksonomy is the panacea to hundreds of years of librarian woe. I know that formal systems are screwed, but i think that folksonomy has its own set of problems.

While i acknowledge the comparisons that can be made about the problematic similarities between folksonomy and formal classification, i also think that the effort towards ‘accuracy’ is actually clouding a few major differences. The differences are not that surprising, but very important. It comes down to benevolent dictator vs. crowd behavior. Sometimes the benevolent dictator goes way wrong, but also, sometimes crowds are scary.

There’s a problematic feature to crowds – they like to homogenize. Yes, the guy with the mohawk can assert his independence, but folks might trample him. Or he might be left to his own planet. Should he be given more attention than others because he is different? Should a classification schema be concerned with frequency/popularity or the full range? What does it mean to classify things that are rare viewpoints? Who gets to decide? That’s a heavily contested domain in classification.

Folksonomy isn’t asking the questions about the implications of collective action classification. Who benefits? Who becomes marginalized? What priorities bubble up? How does pressure to homogenize affect the schema and the people involved? How are some people hurt or offended by decisions that are made? Should moderation of classifications occur? If so, what are the consequences?

I totally appreciate the just-do model that is often espoused here, but i don’t subscribe to it. I believe that you have to go into the doing with the questions always at hand and always in check. What makes formal classification interesting is not its end result, its “technology” but the huge discourse around it, trying to figure out the implications of any and all decisions. Those questions have been around for years and i think that it’s important that we use those questions, those concerns, not for comparison but as a guideline for our hyping.

In short, i love tagging and folksonomy. But once it is taken serious and people are talking about ‘accuracy’ and being offended, questions that must be asked despite the hype – “folksonomy is better” is not good enough for me.

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