If You Love Your Information, Set it Free

Way back in the 90’s there was this movement towards structuring the
web. Everybody, from Yahoo! and its anal-retentive classification
“experts,” to basement webmasters, was trying to bring order to this
intoxicated, intoxicating medium.

Time has taught us that this attitude, for all its good intentions, is
a fool’s errand. There’s a new movement emerging that aims to embrace
the wild nature of the web and map its patterns more organically.

Countless efforts have been made over the years to make sense of the web. Yahoo! has tried in vain to categorize every piece of content. Google just tries to catalogue it and then sort it based on a fantastically complex automated classification scheme that no mere mortal could ever hope to understand. And every other search engine has its own claim to expertise and ownership over the structure of the web.

The web is pretty much like the classic wild stallion: powerful, unwieldy, unbreakable and intent on roaming free. Most commercial interests seek to break the web’s spirit and style its mane into cute little French braids.

They don’t recognize that even the behaviours of wild animals have structure and patterns. The porcupine caribou follow the same migratory path every year. Wild cats have hunting routes they follow with great precision. Bears have very distinct territories.

Just because an animal is not in a corral or a zoo doesn’t mean it’s an unpredictable, chaotic creature. So it is with the web.

These days a new movement that I’ve seen referred to as “folksonomy”, is attempting to map the web’s inherently wild pattern purely through happenstance.

Instead of lassoing the web and tossing a saddle on its back, this new movement prefers to let the medium run free and tries to recognize its natural patterns.

Folksonomy encourages information owners and users alike to generally “tag” web pages any way they choose.

In the old days, attempts at sorting out the web were top-down in nature. Yahoo!, for example, tried to force all online content into a very small assortment of categories.

These days it’s all about letting information happen and then having structure grow from the ground up in true grassroots style.

There are some great examples of this in action online today. My favourite is flickr.com, in essence a photo sharing site. Flickr is free to use in its basic state so anyone can post whatever photos they like.

(On a side note, there’s no reason to fear pornographic or other offensive imagery if you check out Flickr. There are mechanisms for hiding this stuff from view and the Flickr community does a great job of collectively policing this type of content. In fact, in all my time on Flickr I’ve never had to deal with any sort of offensive imagery.)

Photos on Flickr are “tagged” with whatever term the image owner chooses. Then the photos and its tags are submitted to the community at large.

The fun begins when you use tags to browse images in the community. If you browse the tag “blue”, for example, you get everything from blue skies to blue couches to dogs named Blue. It makes for some fascinating browsing of what initially seem to be unrelated images but which are all instantly connected by a rather subjective method of contextualization.

As trust grows in the community images can be cooperatively tagged by users other than the picture’s owner, adding new layers of context and meaning.

Another site that follows this trend is deli.icio.us (I’ll just call it delicious). This web site represents true folksonomy in motion. Delicious, at first glance, is your average garden-variety bookmarks manager. Registered users, however, can accentuate their bookmarks with keywords of their choosing.

Bookmarks and keywords alike are then shared within the community, creating a rich, extremely subjective view of the web. If you view bookmarks that are tagged with the term “ipod” for example, you get a page full of links to web sites that have a variety of contextual relationships with that word.

As a structuralist and a professional information architect, it took me a long time to warm up to this form of information classification. After all, there’s very little room for control here. Flickr users can tag their images in any fashion they choose and the relationships occur dynamically. (I even found one user who tagged all her images using pig Latin.) Delicious users are creating a web site that offers an almost deconstructionist view of the web.

In a sense, though, this is what the web was always meant to be: dynamic, ungovernable, just a long series of eternal hyperlinks that never lead anywhere, offering a perpetual journey.

Attempts to bring a formal structure to this medium have always been relatively futile. It’s refreshing to see a classification methodology emerging that embraces the chaos and allow structure to develop on its own terms.

Andrew Robulack is an IT Business Strategist and Architect based in Whitehorse.