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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first impressions based on tag clouds

The other day, someone pointed me to LJ Tags which shows the top tags on LiveJournal. I was really startled at how much this reflects the cultural difference between LJ and other blogging tools. Where else do you see meme as the top tag and life, school, work and music as the other key ones? And how cool is it that rl, fanfic, harry potter, and a bunch of russian terms are on there? Take a look at the following tag clouds:

Live Journal:


Technorati (a fraction of English tags):


del.icio.us:

Visually, they look awfully similar but the actual words included say such dramatically different things about their communities. Fascinating fascinating…

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14 comments to first impressions based on tag clouds

  • Some of the Russian words are:
    Christmas, life, movie, book, music, thoughts…

  • finn

    there is no christmas in russian tags
    the tags are usual: movies, music, personal, LJ life…
    the only outstanding one is лытдыбр, which is translit from lytdybr, which is the way to write “дневник” (diary) if the writer forgot to switch from english to russian keyboard.

    by the way, russian representation in LJ is so large, that it is no wonder it made it to the top tags.

  • It’s fascinating to watch how different cultures take hold of different Tool/Communities, and it’s equally fascinating to see how tagging visualizes these differences – great post!

  • crzwdjk

    There’s definitely a lot of neat stuff in russian on LJ. My favorite one by far is http://www.livejournal.com/users/russos/ who is a photographer, mostly of the Moscow Metro, which is an amazing and beautiful system. The latest entry is called “The Pagan Essence of Perovo Station”.

  • Sorry, that Xmas was in English! I was tired…

  • Giles

    Just passing through (from Wonderland) and wanted to say ‘great site’. I’m really enjoying reading some of your posts and the insight that shines through from them. Bookmarked!

  • Peter Childs

    Interesting observation.

    What would be fun is to map the tags to visually represent the similartity or divergence of the communities.

    At a lower level it would be interesting to know where there are common tags, if these are created to people who bridge communities or by different people using the tag to mean different things.

  • I’ve been following the tagging phenomenon with interest. Clay Shirky (www.shirky.com) has been a vocal proponent for throwing out the old ontology in favor of folksonomy-style tagging often represented by tag clouds.

    Tag clouds are information-rich. At a glance, I see not only a list of categories (one way of looking at tags), but I get an immediate sense of what matters to the taggers. Because the tags that get used more often are more prominent, I can quickly grasp the focus and interest of the taggers.

    I added a tag cloud to my own blog; it’s very revealing.

  • Jeff – agreed. The trick though is that each has cultural context. It is meaningful because these tools are not universal. They each have their own flavor. I think that at a micro level, they are *super* informing but i actually think that Technorati is the least informative because it compiles data from too many different cultures. I think that this is the danger of throwing out ontologies – they have their value, especially when the goal is to try to bridge different cultures… the value of tags is that they reveal culture.

  • zephoria – Spending my days in the world of knowledge management, I appreciate the value and the need for ontologies where the goal is cultural uniformity. Yet even in the corporate world, there is an opportunity for people-directed tagging.

    As for Technorati being least useful, perhaps. Certainly larger pools will be less interesting. But it’s still a pretty small sample in the big scheme of things. How many people in the world know what the hell Technorati even is? Awareness places you in the circle.

  • I know authoritarian types are getting their undies all in bunch over this grassroots tagging thing but I like Lou Rosenfeld’s take on folksonomies vs. taxonomies. Calling it metadata ecologies means that it’s not a zero sum game and maybe we can develop a neat switch that let’s us look at both views. I want to see easy tools that let you roll your own tag clouds!
    Feel better danah!

  • Greg Maple

    I know I may never find an online community where I feel that I “fit in”, and that’s ok.
    Of the three “clouds” I would most likely want to participate in the del.icio.us because there are specific tags which I would like to learn more about. Funny though, I almost didn’t notice that some of the tags were in red.

  • lindsey

    The tag phenomenon is so interesting…it feels like it popped up overnight. flickr is crazy with the tags, and there’s this site 43things.com where people list goals they want to accomplish, and there’s tags on there. Interesting to see the most popular tags from everyone’s goals. Travel, fun, life, health, love, music, personal, and family are currently the big ones!

  • The tag clouds show the popular tags by the core group. This is helpful to some degree, but not the complete story. How does one find communities of similar interest (to one’s own) within a larger social system? There are benefits to scale in the larger social network ecosystems, but they can also foster wonderful sub-cultures for tangential interests or alternate vocabularies.