The PR-masquerading-as-journalism that passes for “tech news” has been touting Facebook’s platform a lot this week. I have to admit that what I’ve seen has been pretty impressive–while a lot of companies like to talk about social media, Facebook has taken the basic idea of using the social graph as an underlying substrate for software and made it a reality. In doing so they’ve driven home a lesson too often forgotten in the orgies of hype that surround each new “social” technology: that the standards and conventions which make these systems possible always exclude as much as they connect. Susan Leigh Star recognized this 16 years ago, as a McDonald’s customer who is allergic to onions. Kenyatta Cheese and his illegitimate name provide the 2007 remix of Star’s phenomenology of conventions. It seems that Facebook has certain ideas about what kinds of names normal people should have, and what kinds of names are to be considered suspicious. If you’re one of the suspects, no problem: just show them your papers. Or you could opt out of using Facebook. But if they deliver on their promise to become the next Microsoft, you might just have to change your name instead.
Ramesh Jain laments social networking’s focus on youth, wondering when entrepreneurs will begin to use these tools to address needs beyond sex and friendship. Well, they are–LinkedIn being a primary example–but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for venture capitalists to slaver over social networks for people with families and careers the way they do over MySpace and Facebook. The reason for the focus on youth is that young people are more influenced by their peers, and thus more easily marketed to as a bloc. In this sense new mass media like MySpace and Facebook are continuous with old mass media: TV and radio also focus on selling to young people. Rupert Murdoch saw this right away. The bottom line is that it is much easier to make money by inducing artificial needs among the young and pliant than it is to address the real needs of older people.
Jon Udell’s latest post on tagging as declarative programming reminded me of some notes I made last year for a (never written) paper on tagging:
I’m interested in looking at tagging practice outside of the information retrieval framework in which they’ve mostly been discussed. There are at least two other possible frameworks I can think of: service integration and content authoring.
Flexible service integration
Looked at from a service integration point of view, tags provide a flexible way to route information between different applications, whether these are two different kinds of applications used by the same person or two similar applications used by different people. So I may tag my blog entries a certain way so that they will show up in a certain place in someone else’s newsreader–and I can do this despite a lack of standards (beyond RSS and grokking keyword tags) among the toolmakers. Most of the tools built on the Flickr API, as well as many “mash-up” apps in general, rely on the lightweight semantic interoperability provided by tags.
In the past semantic interoperability has been hard to achieve unless one company controlled all the different applications–something that Microsoft came close to achieving, but lost control of with the rise of the WWW. The WWW made great strides in giving applications a common communication protocol (HTTP) and interface description language (HTML), but has struggled with finding common content description languages. First XML, then RDF were the intended answers to this, but they may be too rigid for their intended purpose. Tags may provide enough of the value of more structured schemes to be useful, without the overhead of a complex standardization process.
From the service integration perspective, sharing, notification, and system improvement are the primary goals (and possibly play/competition as well if we consider games as a specific kind of application or mode in which applications can be used). Action, insider reference, and possibly spam are the relevant tag types.
Lightweight content authoring
A more interesting (to me at least) alternative framework is tagging as a form of lightweight authoring. I’ve been struck by how taxonomies of tag types resemble taxonomies of link types from the early hypertext literature. Tags for URL-specified resources in systems such as del.icio.us are basically aggregate hyperlinks (links that associate a set of like documents) as described in the literature. If creating hypertext or hypermedia links is a form of authorship, it seems to be tagging (or certain kinds of tagging) should be as well.
Certainly the first steps in many kinds of authoring, from the creation of an annotated bibliography in preparation for a scholarly article to the separation of clips into bins for a video production, resemble the tagging and sorting enabled by tagging systems. The first blogs were linklogs, and now many people like me use linklogs as a form of lazy blogging. The unmediated blog uses del.icio.us to enable simple collaborative authoring, tagging can be used on Flickr to create slideshows, and del.icio.us via its media support turns tagging into a way to sequence audio and video.
From the content authoring perspective, attracting attention, reputation, identity performance, and opinion influencing are the primary goals, while opinion, relation, and possibly spam are the relevant tag types.
Back to information retrieval
So I would argue that the focus on information retrieval has pushed people to think of tags as primarily descriptive or categorical and tagging practice as primarily retrieval-oriented. This is certainly an important area, and you cover the issues quite well in your paper, I think. But even if tags turn out to be useless for search, they still could be of great value from other perspectives.
[Tangent: I really like Patrick Wilson’s notion of two kinds of power information retrieval systems can offer. The first is descriptive power: the power to obtain all texts which meet some description. The second is exploitative power: the power to obtain the best texts for achieving some end. Google gives us a lot of the former and very little of the latter. Could the analysis of tags used for service integration or authoring give systems a sense of how specific texts are being exploited by different individuals or communities, and thus offer users greater exploitative power?]
The problem with these ideas, I think, is that studies of why people tag show that this isn’t at all how people typically think of tagging (that is, the small minority who even think of tagging at all). Even in cases where people use tags for social communication, I don’t believe they see what they’re doing in terms of integration or authoring. That might change, of course, but I’m not willing to bet on it just yet.
While most of the blogosphere was atwitter over the tantrums being thrown at Digg, real injustice in Los Angeles was being ignored. After watching this video I was ashamed to be part of a community (the designers and evangelists of “Web 2.0″) which sanctimoniously promotes “people power” among the spoiled and entitled while disregarding the tightening grip of authority on the poor and disenfranchised.
I’m having trouble getting worked up about the imminent death of net radio. I’m a pretty huge music fan. I own around 1000 CDs, about as many vinyl LPs and 12″s, and I currently have over 50 GB of music in my iTunes. And of course I’m an obsessively heavy net user. But my cumulative lifetime total time spent listening to streaming net radio is probably under 2 hours. If it disappeared tomorrow, I wouldn’t notice and I wouldn’t care.
Why is this? Part of it is I like to choose my own playlists. But I love broadcast radio. In high school I was a big fan of WREK and Album 88, and in college I was a DJ at KZSU. I like some commercial radio too, especially in places like Atlanta and Oakland where you can still hear sick DJing between the annoying commercials. But part of the appeal of broadcast radio is the local flavor, something lost completely in the move to the net. Net radio is the worst of both worlds: the impersonality that comes with global reach plus the loss of choice over what to listen to next inherent to the radio format.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t dig net music. Most of that 50 GB mentioned above has been harvested from MP3 blogs, which have morphed over the last few years from fanboys posting hot singles to an incredibly diverse array of musical flavor. MP3 blogs provide me with everything from super-eclectic mixes to worldwide beat culture to obscure and forgotten experiments to out jazz to hip hop tapes. As far as I’m concerned, the state of music on the net has never been better.
So farewell net radio, I hardly knew ye.
People are calling the “Digg riot” unprecedented. Unprecedented? I remember seeing this movie before, with DeCSS as The Information That Wanted To Be Free and the Slashdot crowd as the pitchfork-wielding mob of “passionate activists.” Where did that absurdly reductive equation of code with speech get us? Nowhere. Seven years later, the same battles are being fought. If the Slashdotters and Diggers of the world spent their time engaged in real activism, instead of getting their kicks being part of a mob, maybe we’d have seen some progress on DRM issues by now. But that would involve doing more than just clicking on posts while you’re in your parents’ basement waiting for torrents to download.