Collaborative knowledge gardening

With Flickr and del.icio.us, social networking goes beyond sharing contacts and connections

Next month I’ll be giving a talk on social software to an audience of CTOs. To prime the pump, I’ve been spending some time with two of the newer services in the space: Flickr and del.icio.us. Neither focuses primarily on the six-degrees-of-separation dynamic that drives LinkedIn, Orkut, Friendster, and Spoke. Instead, both Flickr and and del.icio.us address specific activities that benefit from an informal, diverse network of people. Flickr, as I would explain it to my friends and family, is a way to easily upload and share digital photos. And del.icio.us does the same thing, only for Web bookmarks.

To CTOs, though, I’d say that both are collaborative systems for building a shared database of items, developing a metadata vocabulary about the items, performing metadata-driven queries, and monitoring change in areas of interest. In the case of Flickr, an item is a photo; in the case of del.icio.us, it’s a URL. But the same methods could apply to any of the shared digital artifacts that we create, find, and use in the course of our daily work.

Conventional wisdom holds that people will never assign metadata tags to content. It just isn’t on the path of least resistance, the story goes, and those few who do step off the path succeed only in creating unwieldy taxonomies. (Do you file the revised XML Schema specification under xml/specifications or specifications/xml? We can never agree, and many good minds are sacrificed in the vain attempt.) Yet somehow, users of Flickr and del.icio.us do routinely tag content, and those tags open new dimensions of navigation and search. It’s worth pondering how and why this works.

Abandoning taxonomy is the first ingredient of success. These systems just use bags of keywords that draw from — and extend — a flat namespace. In other words, you tag an item with a list of existing and/or new keywords. Of course, that idea’s been around for decades, so what’s special about Flickr and del.icio.us? Sometimes a difference in degree becomes a difference in kind. The degree to which these systems bind the assignment of tags to their use — in a tight feedback loop — is that kind of difference.

Feedback is immediate. As soon as you assign a tag to an item, you see the cluster of items carrying the same tag. If that’s not what you expected, you’re given incentive to change the tag or add another. If your items aren’t confidential and online-only access is sufficient, this can be a great way to manage personal information. But the real power emerges when you expand the scope to include all items, from all users, that match your tag. Again, that view might not be what you expected. In that case, you can adapt to the group norm, keep your tag in a bid to influence the group norm, or both.

These systems offer lots of ways to visualize and refine the tag space. It’s easy to know whether a tag you’ve used is unique or, conversely, popular. It’s easy to rename a tag across a set of items. It’s easy to perform queries that combine tags. Armed with such powerful tools, people can collectively enrich shared data. But will they? The success of Flickr and del.icio.us won’t necessarily translate to the intranet. You can import the global-hive mind, but you can’t export the local-hive mind. That asymmetry defines the challenge we face as enterprise knowledge gardeners.