Corporate librarian replaced by Web app

Lesson learned from the Web 2.0 Expo: Tags rule, top-down taxonomy is dead

I’m just back from the Web 2.0 Expo love-fest down the street here in San Francisco, where I stumbled into an interesting session on something I thought was ‘Taxonomy.’

I was hoping to learn about stuffing dead animals, such as the mockingbird that’s been waking me up at 4:00 a.m. for the past month. But that’s ‘Taxidermy,’ as it turns out. Taxonomy is what research librarians used to do -- and professionals who manage documents for corporations still do -- organizing and categorizing reference material. And today those meticulous creatures are running scared, because of the Web 2.0 development known as tagging.

Tagging is one of those buzz concepts (AJAX, wikis, and such) that cause people to roll their eyes at Web 2.0, wondering if it will ever make any money or be relevant to the enterprise. Yet it’s incredibly relevant, as a more user (customer)-centric way of giving people access to a body of knowledge (products).

Pioneered by consumer Web sites such as Flickr (photos) and (shared bookmarking), tags are keywords users append to content, choosing their own terms rather than picking them from a list. When tags are aggregated with other peoples’ tags, a magical browsing experience ensues, in which you keep finding content that is actually related to what you're looking for.

Should enterprises care? Yes. First, tagging systems are much cheaper than having a staff of taxonomists (or taxidermists). Second, they scale much better. Third, tagging ecosystems (or folksonomies, as the Web 2.0 hipsters call them) bring you much closer to the end-user or customer., for example, is pushing quickly into customer tagging to augment its central product catalog. The company will learn faster how its customers perceive and use its products as a result: If customers put tags such as ‘beach house’ on certain products, Amazon will know they’re not just for breakfast anymore.

But where does enterprise tagging make sense, other than for product catalogs? In domains where data is poorly organized and not readily accessible by customers or employees. Knowledge bases in call centers, for example – if the reps call it ‘that blue screen problem’ they’ll tag it with those words, and be able to retrieve the support screen when they need it, without having to know what it’s officially called.

Still think central classification is more powerful because it’s cleaner and more consistent? Then read this article: Ontology is Overrated, by Clay Shirky. It’s a clear-headed comparison of the librarians versus the taggers. People won’t ever agree on what things should be called, goes his basic argument, and if you try to shoehorn people’s thinking for the sake of cleanliness you’ll always miss out on opportunities (in this case, business opportunities).

And speaking of dead things: Now that InfoWorld is 100 percent online, and there's no more dead tree edition, it's interesting to be able to submit a column hours in advance, rather than a week in advance so the issue can get “put to bed.” So, I can learn something Monday, and you’ll hear about it Wednesday -- not the following Wednesday.

Wonder where the term “put to bed” came from? Not as spicy an origin as one might hope. It was from when they used hot lead type, which they would lay into the press bed only after it had cooled. Now we just have to keep the servers cool. Much easier, right?