Wednesday, August 10, 2005

More on folksonomy

So I've been thinking more about Clay Shirky's 'Ontology is Overrated' article, and reading several interesting analyses of it.

I have to admit to being caught up in Shirky's rhetoric for a little while. He's quite a clever and entertaining writer, and finding that in a tech person is rare (says the English major). But it didn't take long for me to get past my enamourment with his writing style to questioning his ideas, specifically the either/or nature of his arguments.

Personally, I think that whether or not collapsing synonyms (or closely related terms) results in signal loss or a more complete range of information depends largely upon context and the purpose of one's search. I suspect that scholarly researchers tend to look for more comprehensive sets of data, whereas those involved in social communities, light research, and simple fact-finding may be satisfied with a limited set of information so long as what they need is there. To go back to Shirky's memorable 'homosexual agenda/queer politics' example: A student doing a dissertation on the gay rights movement in the United States may very well want to bring together the 'homosexual agenda' information with the 'queer politics' information. Said student may not choose to engage in online communities in zir off-research hours, but collecting information for research and scholarship is just as important a use of online resources as building social networks.

Tangentially, this has also gotten me thinking about several scattered remarks I've seen in recent weeks about how the increasing tendency to gather news information online means that more and more people are reading only those news sources with which they share political/social/personal values. I'm not sure I buy that assumption wholesale, I do think there's a kernel of truth to it. I know that I'm most often drawn to online communities and information sources with which I agree. (On the other hand, I do make an effort to read at least some stuff with which I don't agree-- partly on the 'know thine enemy' philosophy, and partly because life is boring when my assumptions are never challenged.) In any case, I wonder how deeply that tendency to build communities of those who agree with us plays into Shirky's folksonomies good/ontologies bad dichotomy. After all, if the 'homosexual agenda' people never have to acknowledge the existence of the 'queer politics' people it reduces conflict in online communities, right?