I was recently asked what I thought of Cory Doctorow’s classic Metacrap paper. He was, of course, dead on when he wrote it. The nagging question at the time was “what alternatives do we have?” And the sad answer was “not many.”
Creating metadata, as traditionally conceived, is the ultimate form of unidirectional asynchronous communication (aka – a message in a bottle). The cataloger attempts to divine a number of individuals who, at some point in the future, are trying to locate a particular resource or one like it, and asks him/herself, “how could I best describe this resource so that these imaginary inhabitants of the future will be able to find it?”
Best practice has been to create controlled vocabularies, publish those so that future searchers will be able to find them, and mandate and guarantee consistency of application of these terms to resources by catalogers. The description of the controlled vocabulary becomes the secret decoder ring that an individual needs in order to find resources. Quite without intent, this practice doubles the searcher’s task for all but the most trivial searchers (like finding a book when you know the author’s name): now a searcher must first find the decoder ring; then, they must figure out how to use it to find the resource they’re looking for.
On very rare occasions, and I mean that seriously, technology comes riding to the rescue. Today we do have at least one viable alternative to the scenario Cory outlined what seems like an eternity ago. Delicious, Flickr, and other sites show the first step. First, instead of having people catalog resources they know about for others to find, they let people catalog things they know about so that *they* can find them again later. No imagining future searchers; no wondering what terms will be meaningful to them. Also, no incentive problems – why spend the time cataloging things for the possible benefit of imaginary people in the future, when you could catalog things for your own benefit?
Delicious and Flickr get a quarter of the way to the last step. When I tag a resource in delicious with “python” or “ruby”, the tag itself becomes a link to all the resources other people have tagged with the same term. That’s pretty useful. What would be even more useful, and we’re going to be showing this in May, is a collaborative filtering system or recommender system (think Amazon’s book recommendations) that matches you with other people like you based on your actual tagging behavior. You just go on bookmarking, blogging, and tagging for your own benefit, and at no extra cost to you the system will help you find other resources and, even more valuable, like-minded people.
In other words, one solution to the problem Cory outlined is the free and open sharing of catalog data created by an individual for their own use, and the automation of person to person recommendations of resources and people based on that data. Notice that folksonomies don’t solve the problem by themselves – free and open access to a large collection of folksonomic data is necessary. We’re calling the work we do in this area “folksemantic” because it blends folksonomic approaches with semantic web approaches (which strictly speaking shouldn’t work – which is why we love it).