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Beyond the Fat Wire

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Ontology is Overrated

Ontology is Overrated: Links, Tags, and Post-hoc Metadata
Clay Shirky, Decentralization Writer/Consultant, shirky.com

ways we think we understand categorization is wrong. what we're doing to categorize on the web is a leftover from previous models that don't fit now

periodic table of the elements - his perfect classification scheme

library card catalog - the most recognizable classification scheme

of course, he trashes LC, which I sympathize with, but he mistakenly assumes that LC is hierarchical, and he is trashing it because he is looking for hierarchy and isn't finding it.

then, with library problems, he complains about using the classification system as a means for shelfmarking. which is also true

first there was the periodic table of elements, then there was the library card catalog, then there was Yahoo as the first attempt to categorize the web

The idea is -- how do you organize the world -- create a categorization system -- WITH NO SHELF .... that is, with no extenally specified "correct location" for an item

(moving through faceted classification to nothing but lots of links between items -- that is, search rather than browse)

An ontology presupposes a set of users, for whom, the structure and terminology of the ontology are designed

the more you move towards size, scale, nonexpert users, the less useful an ontology is

Voodoo Categorization

most of the world is not amenable to categorization, and when you try to force it you get problems
  • signal loss (is it Mac, Apple, or OSX) -- you have to create, mandate, and enforce terminology (is it movies, film or cinema? and what do you lose when you collapse terms?)
  • predicting the future is hard (a book about Dresden goes in the category "East Germany" -- what do you do when there no longer is an "East Germany"?)

Organic Categorization




well, i agree with him but only to a point. users should create their own categories. their own, ad hoc, fully in-the-moment categories are going to be great, at least for them, at least for now.

searching is great, and a massive ontology has problems

but ...

organic categorization is even less useful for finding the UNKNOWN ...

at best, you can only find individual unknown items that are within known categories ... or among the categorizes of people in your network who you trust with their categorization

does the world make sense? if you think so, then you make a categorization system based on that, not regarding those who don't agree with the way you make sense of the world


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