Left on the shelf?

I listened to a really interesting talk yesterday ‘Ontology is Overrated’ by Clay Shirkey – http://www.itconversations.com/shows/detail470.html.

His main point was that we are sticking to old habits of classification in an online world, even though these habits were brought about by the physical constraints of the shelf, which are no longer applicable. In a physical environment our real goal was to optimise the physical storage and not the intellectual aspect. In reality, ideas can be all over the place, but a book (or archive) has to be one place. He compared the approach of Yahoo to Google: Yahoo persisted with categories and limited cross-references, and Google gave up on the idea of classifying by subject and just went with the principle ‘you stick in your search terms and we’ll find relevant stuff’, and Google has now practically taken over the search engine world. Clay believes that ontologies only work well if you have a limited amount of stuff, if it is clear and if it is stable. Classification schemes effectively mean that we describe something and then ask users to guess how we’ve described it. We should be moving away from all or nothing categorisations. The reality of folksonomies, used in popular services such as del.icio.us, is that each individual categorisation scheme is worth less, but there are many many more of them. If we can find way of creating value by rolling them up over time they will come to outpace professional categorisation schemes, particularly re. robustness and costs.

“Does the world make sense or do we make sense of the world?”

He concluded that if we are to make sense of the world, then there are many points of view and we shouldn’t privilege one version. We can try to make sense of rolling up what is out there to get an aggregate value, but without having an ontological goal and without trying to get a perfect view of the world.

Well, its all food for thought. I do believe that we need to think differently in an online world, and we are going to have to embrace the interactive nature of the Web – many users like services where they have control and they can tag their own content. However, I think that doing away with the idea of professional categorisation is going too far the other way. We need to find imaginative ways to work with both approaches and get the best for all types of user.