Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Delicious questions I can sink my teeth into

My current course is covering tagging this week. As such, I posted this blog's prior del.icio.us primer to my class forum. There were two responses that offer interesting concerns about usefulness and safety of del.icio.us.

Value of del.icio.us
From S.C.:
I used to be a information junkie and file folder fanatic, the literal sort, collecting information in case I ever needed it. But then I realized that I was a collector and not a user, so I threw away my files and downsized my cabinet ... all except my favorite ten. So this phenomenon really intrigues me and would love to know how the info that is tagged gets used, as opposed to collected.

My response:

First, I agree that a lot of people tag things on del.icio.us that they will in all likelihood never retrieve again. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have value.

For one, conventional tree-system bookmarking via your browser gets limited very fast, particularly if you have a lot of bookmarks, bookmarks hard to classify, or, like me, you think more in terms of keywords rather than rigid classification structures. Even if you only return to very few of your bookmarks, knowing you can find them again fairly easy is worth the effort. Of course, if you're fairly good at googling you can retrieve things that way - but sometimes I forget everything about a bookmark, except a vague sense of the topic, so keyword tagging is great for that. Also, del.icio.us gives you a search engine for your bookmarks, which no browser has.

Second, when you bookmark via del.icio.us you automatically share your bookmarks with the rest of the wired world. You can opt out of each individual tag by clicking the "do not share" option, but that defeats a lot of the value of it, which is social bookmarking. You contribute to the classification of scattered, overly-abundant online information when you tag on del.icio.us. So others can benefit from your findings and one day computers will be able to read these tags effectively and then we'll have a search engine that will probably beat Google for its accuracy.

You can do other things with your tags too. My favourite is sharing a specific tag automatically on my blog. So I get a Reuters-type feed of Internet news on my blog automatically by reading the news (as I normally do) and tagging them. A friend set up a del.icio.us account for all research by their communication team, so that they can all share their findings.

So there's lots of uses for del.icio.us even if you don't retrieve your bookmarks very often.

Privacy concerns
From S.T.:
When I show (and show off!) my del.icio.us site to my co-workers, the first question that comes back at me is 'what about security and privacy?

My response:

Security concerns would be along the lines of can someone hack into your account and if you have a good, long alphanumeric password then I wouldn't worry any more than I would when registering with any online service.

Privacy is a more complicated concern. When you bookmark on del.icio.us or many other similar sites , you are by default (which can be changed), making all your bookmarks available to the public. Furthermore, search engines index your bookmarks page and this will bring more exposure to your bookmarking.

So if you do not want all your bookmarking public,ere are some tips:

  1. When bookmarking/tagging in del.icio.us, you can always click the "do not share" button for any or all your bookmarks and it is private. You lose some of the benefits of social bookmarking, but then you do get better privacy and can still use the service for your own bookmark organizing.
  2. If you still want to participate in social bookmarking but are a bit concerned, don't chose a username that can be identified with you.
  3. Choose to make any bookmarks that can be identified with you or your life (eg. your hometown website, your portfolio, the company you work for, etc) as "do not share".
  4. Under account settings "edit profile", indicate that you don't want your name or a url used.
  5. If you don't want to others to see those in your network - you can choose to have that not display. This is also done in account settings under "network privacy".
I don't want to scare any one off as I have never had any problems with del.icio.us and I am as open as possible on it. But I wanted people to know about the privacy options as they are important considerations.

To close, I'll include a quotation from a classmate on my del.icio.us knowledge that was cyber-candy to me:
Your knowledge of del.icio.us is astounding! I am learning so much, thanks! You could be a tagging consultant, make oodles, retire at 40 and live in the Caymans!
I intend to start a custom tag, "Tagging_to_Caymans" and put all the ways I can make money from this trivia.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Path Dependency & Loss of Novelty

Here's a mini assignment I had to do for my latest class, Human Computer Interaction. The assignment was to take these two readings and discuss the concepts of path dependency and loss of novelty.


Path dependency and loss of novelty create barriers to technological innovation, as demonstrated by King, Grinter, and Pickering in their analysis of the Internet’s development (Kiesler, 1997) and can also be seen in operating system (OS) development as outlined by Stephenson (Stephenson, 2008).

Loss of novelty, as described by King et al, refers to the passing of excitement surrounding technological discovery, and while they apply this concept to the developers of technology, it can be extended to the users of technology. Just as a sense of novelty can be a leading incentive for technology innovation, it can also be an incentive for technology adoption – but the inverse is also true. A sense of novelty can lead individuals to overcome various barriers (for example, costs, learning curve, time) to use and adapt new technology, such as when home computers were first introduced many people eagerly explored using them, but this willingness to explore has been replaced by utilitarian concerns with accomplishing tasks at hand. Thus, while Stephenson is critical of the average consumer loyal to Windows, despite superior or cheaper alternatives, such as Linux or BeOS, loss of novelty helps explain why people do not want to learn how to use a new operating system.

Developers do not like to re-invent the wheel, as there are few financial or reputational incentives and, as Stephenson states, “nothing is more disagreeable to the hacker than the duplication of effort” (Stephenson, 2008). Having worked as a programmer, I can attest that the thrill of a new challenge is among the greatest incentives. Much of operating system code is foundational code; although it is not perfect, it is often re-used or third party and offers little challenge to developers, who, as a result, tend to move on to other technological fields. Development of Linux has continued, not, I believe, due to a sense of novelty, but rather due to a commitment to open source ideals, cost-effectiveness, or a dislike of Microsoft.

Even if developers were inclined to innovate with operating systems, they would encounter another barrier, the widespread path dependency to Microsoft Windows. Path dependency happens when “early technologies becom[e] so established in use that they cannot be displaced by newer, and clearly better, technologies” (Kiesler, 1997, p. 30). This can be seen with the Internet where temporary conventions became immovable standards. Innovation does not progress with OS because Microsoft’s virtual monopoly means they do not have a compelling business reason to innovate and other companies face an almost impenetrable market. Other companies add to this path dependency by building their software to support only Windows, and thus innovations other OS companies may offer are further marginalized.

As mentioned earlier, users do not want to take the time to learn a new OS. Users also do not want to incur the costs or risks of switching to a new system that may not be compatible with their existing software and files. These are examples of physical path dependencies, but mental ones exist for users as well. Stephenson notes how both Apple and Microsoft have through sophisticated branding managed to get “people to believe in, and to pay for, a particular image” (Stephenson, 2008). By tying people’s sense of self to their operating system, the prowess of the operating system is subservient to maintaining that identity.

While there have been great technological innovations in the creation of the Internet and operating systems, both have had innovation stymied by path dependency and loss of novelty.


King, J. L., Grinter, R. E., & Pickering, J. M. (1997). The rise and fall of Netville: The saga of a cyberspace construction boomtown in the great divide. In S. Kiesler (Ed.), Culture of the Internet (pp. 3-33). Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Stephenson, N. (2008). In the beginning was the command line. Retrieved January 29, 2008, from http://www.spack.org/wiki/InTheBeginningWasTheCommandLine

Saturday, February 02, 2008

On Tags and Signs: A Semiotic Analysis of Folksonomies

In the last few years, the practice of tagging resources on the World Wide Web has become a more popular activity, due in part to the success of websites that feature tagging functionality prominently, such as del.icio.us, Flickr, Technorati, CiteULike, and LibraryThing. These websites allow the collection and sharing of bookmarks, photographs, blog postings, academic papers, and books respectively, and tagging is a key method to enable retrieval and sharing within these sites. Delicious offers the best description of tags and tagging, and this description can be extended beyond bookmarks to a general definition:
Tags are one-word [or multiple words written without spaces or with underscores] descriptors that you can assign to your bookmarks on del.icio.us to help you organize and remember them. Tags are a little bit like keywords, but they're chosen by you, and they do not form a hierarchy. You can assign as many tags to a bookmark as you like…This is great for organizing and finding personal data, but it goes even further when someone else posts related content using the same tags. You begin building a collaborative repository of related information, driven by personal interests and creative organization. (del.icio.us)
Tagging information as a practice existed prior to these websites popularizing it, but these websites were among the first to extend the practice beyond the domain of content creators or information specialists to the general public (Weinberger, 2007, p. 92). When tagging is done by the public, it is often known as a folksonomy (globeandmail.com)
For an understanding of how folksonomies work, or often do not work, the academic tradition of semiotics offers help to “understand what goes into a message…[it] also help[s] to understand how the message comes to have meaning” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2008, p. 105) Through a semiotic analysis of the characteristics of folksonomies, I will explore three main difficulties inherent to them. Despite these difficulties, they are emerging as a popular new form of communication in line with the more fluid notions of meaning consistent with the post-structuralist notion of semiotics. The characteristics to be examined are that, first, folksonomies’ collective nature facilitates open meaning, second, that tagging for the self results in confusing connotations, and third, that there is a lack of message coding (in the semiotic sense). Prior to discussing these characteristics, however, I will provide background information about the problems inherent to the use of folksonomies, and insight on how semiotics provides a useful conceptual tool to examine them.
Problem with Folksonomies
The practice of tagging is useful as a personal means to organize data and as a mnemonic device for one’s own retrieval. Indeed, it was originally for this use that Joshua Schachter created del.icio.us (Weinberger, 2007, p. 162). When one moves beyond the personal uses for tagging, however, to the social aspects, the utility of tagging becomes more problematic. There are essentially two levels of complications: 1) people’s tags may be difficult for others to understand, 2) people may have tagged items inappropriately for others’ needs. A good example of this problem was a recent search of Flickr for photos of Hawaii. In addition to the expected images of beaches and volcanoes, one also gets, among the top results, a picture of a couple at an outdoor restaurant (presumably located in Hawaii) and a close-up of a lizard (also presumably located in Hawaii). Another example of tagging difficulties arises in a scan of the most popular tags at del.icio.us, revealing some more meaningful tags (youtube, tv, psychology), but others that are puzzling (toread, fic, ubuntu, fun). People are participating in folksonomies, but not always doing it in a manner that is useful to others.
Use of semiotics
Semiotics is the “study of signs” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2008, p. 35) and tags are definitely signs. Using a triadic structure of a sign with a signifier, that is the “material dimension of the sign,” a signified, “the cultural or conceptual dimension,” and the referent “the real thing in the world,” the structure of a folksonomy sign can be broken down (Black, 2007a, p. 5):
  1. signifier = a word or single term that is a link appearing on a webpage
  2. signified = what that word link represents to the user, i.e. an expectation of resources on that topic
  3. referent = the actual resources that have been tagged with that word, at that point in time
Examining folksonomies through this semiotic structure initially reveals one of the fundamental difficulties with folksonomies, that is, the referent is almost always unknown to the user until he or she clicks through. Often with signs, there is a clear or discernible referent, yet folksonomies, by their very nature, are a complete mystery to the user, making a single, clear meaning unlikely.
Another problematic element is that current technology and practice do not disambiguate the multiple senses one signifier may have (for example, synonyms such as: asp, the programming language and asp, the snake of Cleopatra fame) or to join multiple signifiers sharing the same signified (for example, blog, blogs, weblog). Morville believes that folksonomies are thus fundamentally flawed due to their inability to “handle equivalence, hierarchy, and other semantic relationships caus[ing] them to fail miserably at any significant scale” (as cited inWeinberger, 2007, p. 166). However, Weinberger believes that computers, possibly via artificial intelligence, will eventually address some elements of ambiguity in folksonomies (Weinberger, 2007, p. 166).
For Saussure, a founder of semiotic theory, “the meanings of a sign were fixed socially by convention and, thus, were independent of any consequential variation in interpretation” (Danesi, 1999, p. 11). Yet, consequential variation in interpretation is often widespread with folksonomies, indicating that the meaning offered by tag signs is more complicated, compared to other uses of signs.