Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags

The growth of tagging (also referred to as social bookmarking or folksonomy) has received increased media attention recently. CNN claims tagging “could be our salvation as we attempt to sift through the growing clutter of data we’re amassing on our hard drives and on that growing digital repository that is the Internet.”

To help guide our understanding of tagging, Clay Shirky has posted a summary of two talks he recently gave on tagging, titled “Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags.” It’s definitely worth a read.

Tagging is beginning to play a larger role in my dissertation research. Tags might represent a unique categorization schema, challenging and offering benefits over traditional hierarchical or structured methods of organizing information. As Joshua Schachter, the creator of del.icio.us, stated in this Technology Review article, “a bunch of people doing ‘okay’ tagging may actually have a higher net value than an authoritative organization telling you how information should be organized.” Or, as Shirky summarizes:

The signal benefit of these systems is that they don’t recreate the structured, hierarchical categorization so often forced onto us by our physical systems. Instead, we’re dealing with a significant break — by letting users tag URLs and then aggregating those tags, we’re going to be able to build alternate organizational systems, systems that, like the Web itself, do a better job of letting individuals create value for one another, often without realizing it.

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