[joho] JOHO - March 3, 2005

  • From: David Weinberger <self@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: joho@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Wed, 02 Mar 2005 16:09:56 -0500

Journal of the
Hyperlinked Organization
March 3, 2005
Editor: David Weinberger (self@xxxxxxxxxxx)
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+---------------------------------------------+ | CONTENTS | | | | TREES AND TAGS - AN INTRODUCTION: What are | | taxonomies, tags, faceted classification, | | folksonomies...? And do they matter? | | | | MY LIFE AS A BERKPERSON: I've been at the | | Harvard Berkman Center since last summer. | | Here's what it's like. | | | | LARRY SUMMERS AND THE WEB AS WORLD: The | | blogosphere practically demands that | | Harvard-related bloggers say something | | -- something! -- about their President's | | President's...and that's evidence that the | | Web is a world, not just a medium | +---------------------------------------------+ +---------------------------------------------+ | LOW-VALUE, REPETITIVE ISSUE | | | | I'm away at conferences most of March, so | | I figured I'd take the opportunity to put | | out this issue even though the first two | | articles in it already ran on my blog. | | Plus, the first one is on the topic I've | | been harping on and the second is so | | positive that you might want to suck on a | | horseradish root while you read it. | +---------------------------------------------+ +---------------------------------------------+ | NIGHTLINE THURSDAY MARCH 8 | | | | We've been told that ABC's Nightline -- | | the on-its-way-out Ted Koppel vehicle -- | | is going to air a piece on blogging | | including footage taped at the Thursday | | night blogging confabulation at the | | Berkman Center. Because the cameras were | | there, we all tried to be extra-special | | quotable. | | | | The ABC folks came in thinking they were | | doing a story about how bloggers have | | knocked down media idols -- the Hit | | Squad view of blogging. If a broader | | picture of blogging comes across, then | | I'll count the Thursday session as | | successful. | | | | My live blogging of the event: | | http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/mtarchive/003704.html | Steve Garfield's 5-min video of the meeting:| | http://stevegarfield.blogs.com/videoblog/2005/02/on_the_record_b.html | | +---------------------------------------------+

--------------------------------- TREES AND TAGS - INTRODUCTION

    NOTE: This is the introductory section of the new
    issue of Esther Dyson's Release 1.0 [1]. The
    article goes on to talk about some companies
    doing interesting things in this area, including
    Yahoo, Corbis, ClearForest, Chandler, the Dewey
    Decimal Classification system, Endeca, Siderean,
    NYTimes.com, del.icio.us, Flickr, Wikipedia,
    frassle and Technorati. If you'd like the issue,
    you can buy it. (It's $80) [2]. If you're feeling
    flush, you can subscribe [3]. And if you are
    flush and have a few free days, I'll see you at
    PCForum [4], one of the best conferences around.
    (Thanks to Esther and Christina Koukkos for
    permission to post this.)


The narrative that tells of the first man and woman
encountering the tree of knowledge focuses on its
tempting fruit. But after we took the bite, we
apparently looked up and got the idea that knowledge
is shaped like the tree's branching structure: Big
concepts contain smaller ones that contain smaller
ones yet. Over the millennia, we have fashioned the
structures of knowledge in just such tree-like ways,
from the departmental organization of universities
(liberal arts contains history and history contains
ancient Chinese history) to the hierarchy of
species. The idea that knowledge is shaped like a
tree is perhaps our oldest knowledge about

Now autumn has come to the forest of knowledge,
thanks to the digital revolution. The leaves are
falling and the trees are looking bare. We are
discovering that traditional knowledge hierarchies
that have served us so well are unnecessarily
restricted when it comes to organizing information
in the digital world. The principles of organization
themselves are changing now that they are being
freed from the constraints of the physical world.
For example:

In the physical world, a fruit can hang from only
one branch. In the digital world, objects can easily
be classified in dozens or even hundreds of
different categories.

In the real world, multiple people use any one tree.
In the digital world, there can be a different tree
for each person.

In the real world, the person who owns the
information generally also owns and controls the
tree that organizes that information. In the digital
world, users can control the organization of
information owned by others. (Exception to the rule:
Westlaw owns the standard organization of case law
even though the case law itself is in the public

These differences are so substantial that we can
think of intellectual order as entering a third age.
In the first, we organized the things themselves: We
put books on shelves and silverware into drawers. In
the second, we physically separated the metadata
from the data: We built card catalogs and drew
diagrams. In the third, the data and the metadata
are digital, untying organization from the
strictures of the physical world. In response, we
are rapidly inventing new principles and tools of
organization. When it comes to innovation on the
Internet, metadata is becoming the new content.

But traditional taxonomic trees aren't something we
can throw away without a thought. They are an
amazingly efficient way of organizing complexity
because they enable us to focus on one aspect (e.g.,
that's an apple) while keeping a universe of context
(it's a fruit, part of a plant, a type of living
thing) in the background, ready for access. Tree
structures are built into our institutions. They may
even be built into our genes. So we are in a
confusing and fertile period as we try to sort out
what works and what doesn't. Without trees, how
would we organize college curricula, business org
charts, the local library, and the order of species?
How will we organize knowledge itself?

We may be on the path to finding out.


The tree of knowledge has roots, of course. They go
back to Aristotle, who figured out how knowledge
could be nested without having to claim that the
container (say, the concept of human-ness) is the
same sort of thing as what it contains (all existing
humans). The individual items in a hierarchy inherit
the properties of all the categories above it, so
that if you know that Alcibiades is a human, you
also know that he is a mammal and an animal.
Inheritance provides a context by which the
individual accretes the accumulated wisdom of the
tree just by hanging on a particular branch -- an
amazingly efficient way of expressing knowledge.

Five hundred years later the Syrian philosopher
Porphyry first drew Aristotle's system of nested
concepts as a tree.  That notion stuck, implicitly
endorsed by Carl Linnaeus and Charles Darwin in the
sciences, Francis Bacon in philosophy, and by
libraries and academic departments just about

The next stop in this story is Postmodernism's
insistence that trees of knowledge are reflections
of particular cultural assumptions and, importantly,
conflate knowledge and power. You can't read Michel
Foucault's The Order of Things and believe that
order itself has no history. And not just French
philosophers have given up on the old dream of
finding a single, universal, comprehensive way of
organizing the world's knowledge. You can't come out
of Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star's study
of the International Classification of Diseases,
Sorting Things Out, thinking that classification
systems are value-free and objectively true. Nor can
you look at the US Census' 2000 decision to expand
the number of possible races without seeing that
taxonomies can have enormous political and budgetary

The brief history of the Web has recapitulated
Western culture's ontogeny of trees. Yahoo!'s
directory tree became the early center of the Web,
each leaf hand-selected and placed into categories
designed initially by two computer science grad
students at Stanford. But text search engines --
AltaVista, HotBot, Google -- dethroned Yahoo! as the
Monarch of Search,  and Yahoo! in turn has moved its
browsable tree below the fold on its home page.

When text search isn't the right solution -- for
example, at e-commerce sites where people may not
know the names of the products they're looking for --
a more dynamic way of creating and presenting trees,
called faceted classification, is coming into its
own. Invented in the early 1930s by Shiyali
Ranganathan, an Indian librarian, it applies a pre-
defined set of parameters (or facets) to its
objects. For example, watches might have facets such
as manufacturer, digital or analog, men's or
women's, price, and electric or spring-driven. Some
facets are a set of possible values (such as a pick-
list of available manufacturers); others are a range
of numerical values (such as price range). Users can
then browse by selecting first on, say, digital or
analog and then by price, or first by price and then
by men's or women's. Users can drill down as they do
with a normal tree, but the arrangement of the
branches is dynamic and reflects the users'
interests, not the store's. The store may not like
it that you've routed around the $25,000 Rolex
they're offering on sale for a mere $24,000, but
you've found your $50, waterproof, analog watch much

Faceted classification still presents users with a
hierarchical tree, making it easy for them to browse
to what they want. But unlike traditional trees,
faceted systems don't decide beforehand how the
branches are arranged. For example, if an ice cream
stand organized its "customer experience" around a
traditional hierarchical taxonomy -- a tree -- it
might have a customer first choose between two
flavors, then among three sizes, and finally between
a cup or cone. There are 12 potential paths and
exactly one path to a large cup of chocolate ice
cream. In a faceted system, you could browse first
by flavor, size, or container, resulting in 36
potential paths and three ways of getting to your
large cup of chocolate. Faceted systems, like trees,
enable users to navigate by continually focusing
their interests, but users get to decide how their
interests are structured. This makes faceted systems
very useful where there are lots of items with
easily specifiable properties and users whose ways
of browsing are difficult to predict, such as a
parts catalog.


Tags have become the meme of the year, at least so
far, writing another chapter in the history of
classification systems. Tagging is an old idea, but
it seems to be taking off now because some
applications provide end-users with immediate
benefits. For example, at del.icio.us, users enter
bookmarks (URLs) they want to remember, adding a
word or two -- tags -- so they can sort them later.
Del.icio.us [5] users can see not only everyone
else's bookmarks, but also all the bookmarks tagged
with a particular word. For example, if you care
about Emily Dickinson, you can see all the Web pages
del.icio.us users have tagged with "Dickinson" or
"Emily Dickinson," a great tool for researchers.

Traditionally, people have been loath to attach
metadata to objects, because it felt like a chore
without immediate benefit. At del.icio.us and other
sites such as Flickr [6], a photo-sharing site,
there is a strong social benefit to tagging: We get
to contribute to, and benefit from, the tagging done
by others. To lower the hurdle and encourage
tagging, both sites allow us to type in any word we
want, rather than forcing us to navigate some
hierarchical, controlled vocabulary. Of course, that
also makes it far harder to find relevant objects:
There's no immediate way to tell whether a photo
tagged with "apple" shows a fruit or a computer.
Plus, a search for photos tagged with "apple" will
miss relevant photos tagged as "GrannySmith."

Tags are a break from previous ways of categorizing.
Both trees and faceted systems specify the
categories, or facets, ahead of time. They both
present users with tree-like structures for
navigation, letting us climb down branches to get to
the leaf we're looking for. Tagging instead creates
piles of leaves in the hope that someone will figure
out ways of putting them to use -- perhaps by hanging
them on trees, but perhaps creating other useful
ways of sorting, categorizing and arranging them.

Even in these early days of tagging, we're seeing
self-organizing taxonomies emerge from the piles.
For example, if you're tagging a page about an Apple
computer, you may notice that far more people use
the tag "Mac" than "Macintosh." So, if you want lots
of people to find the page, you will tag it "Mac."
By using that tag, you have also increased the
popularity and momentum of the "Mac" tag. The
resulting bottom-up clusters of tags has been called
a folksonomy. (It's also been called a "tagsonomy,"
but that's harder to differentiate from "taxonomy"
when spoken aloud.)

Folksonomies stand in sharp contrast to both trees
and faceted systems. First, folksonomies tend to be
clusters of tags, not hierarchies: There's a pile of
"apple" tags and another pile of "GrannySmith" tags,
but the folksonomy may not recognize that the latter
is a subset of the former. Hierarchies can sometimes
be derived from folksonomies, but they don't have to
be. Second, trees and faceted systems are designed
ahead of time, usually by information professionals.
Folksonomies grow organically. Third, trees and
faceted systems are usually owned and controlled by
the people who own the information being organized,
whereas folksonomies are (so far) unowned and not
centrally controlled. Fourth, trees and faceted
systems drive out ambiguity. For example, take a
page that in a tagging system carries the ambiguous
tag "apple." In a tree or faceted system, the branch
it hangs from would tell you whether the page is
about computers or fruit -- inheritance at work.
Tagging systems are inherently ambiguous. Trees are
neat; piles of leaves are messy.

Because of these differences, the three approaches
are useful in different circumstances:

Because they are unambiguous, trees work well where
information can be sharply delineated and is
centrally controlled. Users are accustomed to
browsing trees, so little or no end-user training is
required. But trees are expensive to build and
maintain and require the user to understand the
subject area well: How do you find the recipe for
bread soup if you don't know to look in the "Tuscan
Cooking" category?

Faceted systems work splendidly where an application
is being used by such a wide range of users that no
one tree going to match everyone's way thinking.
They are also easier to maintain than trees because
adding a new item requires only filling in the
information about facets, rather having to make a
decision about exactly which category it should go

Tagging systems are possible only if people are
motivated to do more of the work themselves, for
individual and/or social reasons. They are
necessarily sloppy systems, so if it's crucial to
find each and every object that has to do with, say,
apples, tagging won't work. But for an inexpensive,
easy way of using the wisdom of the crowd to make
resources visible and sortable, there's nothing like

The craft of creating and maintaining trees and
faceted systems is well advanced and well
understood. Businesses have been built around them.
But we don't yet know the outcome of the current
infatuation with tags. The potential is real: If
tag-mania continues, it will provide a layer of new
metadata, generated by humans for other humans, that
will invoke innovation and businesses -- and
problems -- we necessarily cannot anticipate.

[1] http://www.release1-0.com/
[2] http://www.release1-0.com/shop/additem.cfm?ItemID=4579726
[3] https://www.release1-0.com/release1/subscribe.cfm
[4] http://www.release1-0.com/pcforum/
[5] http://del.icio.us
[6] http://www.flickr.com


I struggled to make this a hard-hitting piece that
rips the lid off Harvard Law's Berkman Center for
the Internet and Society [1]. But the fact is that
I'm really happy here, and my fellowship was renewed
before I published this. It's a stimulating and kind
environment. So, you'll have to make up your own
snarky comments.

Before I applied for a Berkman fellowship, I had to
ask John Palfrey and Ethan Zuckerman, neither of
whom I knew, a whole bunch of damn fool questions. I
had no living sense of what it meant to be a Berkman
fellow. Do you drink sherry at 4? Just how witty is
the banter? Would I get a discount on ascots?

I've been a fellow since July. Here's what it's


The Berkman Center for the Internet and Society is a
Center within Harvard Law. The professors affiliated
with it are all with the Law School, and so are many
of the students who take part in the various
activities, but I find the overall interests have
more to do with policy than law; I spend little of
my time listening to lawyers discussing cases in an
argot I don't understand.

When you apply for a fellowship, you have to state
what project you want supported, and that determines
what your activities will be. The site lists five
project areas [2], each prefixed with the word "open":
Law, governance, education, commerce and content.
Some of the actual projects underway are:

    Documenting Internet "filtering" (=censorship) by
    various governments

    Trying to increase international awareness in the
    blogosphere by facilitating "bridge bloggers"

    Encouraging and facilitating the growth of blogs
    in rights-challenged countries

    Aggregating information about all the groups
    aiming at establishing international governance
    of the Internet

    Building software to encourage classroom cross-
    discipline and cross-border conversation

    The Digital Media Project, looking at the legal,
    social and economic effects of five possible
    "scenarios" describing the development of digital
    media tech and law

The Center combines research and advocacy, which is
always a tough balance. While the Center doesn't
enunciate official stands on issues, it comes down
consistently in favor of keeping the Internet an
open space for ideas and innovation.


The Berkman Center has its own house, a three- story
Victorian on Mass Ave a few blocks (but on a cold
day, a very long few blocks) from Harvard Square.
It's a funky place, furnished with a dog pound of
furniture, just the way your college apartment was.
There's not a lot of space, so only a few people
have offices there. The rest of us come in as
appropriate and hang around the small-ish downstairs
meeting room or perhaps grab a spare computer in a
hallway or cranny. (You've gotta like a house with
crannies.) I have a home office, so I don't come
into the Center to write. I come to hang out with

Last year, the Center started a new semi-policy:
Tuesdays are fellows days. That's the day to show
up. In the morning, fellows hang out in the
downstairs meeting room around a table. There are
bagels, fruit and coffee, and no topic. It's usually
only a handful of us. I think I most see Rebecca
MacKinnon, Ethan Zuckerman, Zephyr Teachout, Mary
Rundle, Derek Bambauer, Henrik Schneider and Wendy
Koslow there. There's never a problem getting a
conversation going. Jezoos Carruthers, I learn a

Most Tuesdays there's a lunchtime speaker. It's in
the same small room, often with an overflow crowd of
twenty or so. The speakers range pretty much all
over the lot, from a Microsoft lawyer talking about
copyright to a report on connectivity in Uzbekistan.
Typically the speaker doesn't get through her
presentation entirely. The Center provides

Tuesdays are the most structured, but any day of the
week you will find interesting people from whom you
will learn gobs. Plus, there are speakers, meetings
and get-togethers at random times.


Each fellow is expected to present her research at a
Tuesday lunch or equivalent and to write something
for the Center's journal. The rest of your duties
are determined by the project the Center is

My case is a bit unusual because my project --
working on a book about the effect the digital
organization of stuff is having on the nature of
knowledge (I really have to find a more interesting
way of describing it) -- is a bit off-topic for the
Center. So, I'm supposed to work on the book and
also lead a series of Wednesday night discussions.

Fellowships are usually for one year.


A stipend that ranges from $0 to $42,000. (I'm way
at the low end of the scale, and certainly need to
keep my day job.)

A Harvard ID that lets you use just about any of its

A Harvard business card that impresses the hell out
of people

The opportunity to participate in the life of the

No parking privileges


I've been in a variety of academic environments, and
the Berkman is the most collegial of them. Much of
that is due to the personalities of the law
professors in charge. The Center's first instinct,
in my limited experience, is to support you in your
project or line of thought. There is an air of
sweetness about the Center, which I did not expect.
I mean, these are Harvard law professors. Didn't
they see The Paper Chase, fer pete's sake?

The Center is multi-partisan in theory. In practice,
the Center's heart is clearly pro- grassroots. It's
unlikely to file a friend-of- the-court brief
supporting the RIAA. (If you're from the RIAA and
give a lunchtime talk, you'll be treated with
respect, but you'll also be asked tough questions by
Harvard lawyers.)

I personally love the mix of scholarship and
activism. These are folks passionate about the
Internet both intellectually and practically. And
it's a "learning community": I have yet to be
laughed at (to my face, anyway) for asking dumb
questions. The ethos is one of generosity: People
will spend forever helping me to understand things.

I see more women there than men.


The gender balance feels about right in practice
among the fellows (yes, I'm aware of the irony of
using the word "fellows" in this sentence), although
it's way off at the professorial level. And the
atmosphere is definitely not one of macho
competition and oneupmanship. There's a fair bit of
international presence, and most discussions occur
within a global perspective. The racial balance

It is an academic environment, which often informs
the discourse. If that's not your cup of tea, then
the Berkman Center is probably not for you. It is,
however, also an activist center. I like the
balance. You may not.

The range of political and policy opinions among the
fellows is fairly narrow. More diversity would help.

I'm having trouble coming up with other negatives.
(Oy, that sentence sits there like bait!)


If you can't tell, I'm enjoying my time as a
Berkperson. I'm meeting people I care about and,
unsurprisingly, you can't hardly walk through the
doors without falling into a conversation that
changes the way you think. What more could I ask
for? Besides a parking space.

[1] http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/home
[2] http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/projects/


I've posted a couple of blog entries about the Larry
Summers affair -- he's the president of Harvard and,
as you may have heard, he shot off his mouth about
the genetic inferiority of women when it comes to
math and the sciences. I posted [1] before Summers
released the transcript [2] of his remarks, and
longer remarks afterwards [3]. Today, The Boston
Globe ran a column by Robert Kuttner [4] that I like
a whole lot better than what I wrote.

But what's most interesting to me is the fact that
as a blogger and a member of the Harvard community
(fellows are not faculty members) I felt that I
should say something about it. The blogosphere is
becoming a moral space, not in the sense that it's
all goodness, but in the sense that the failure to
post is itself a statement.

This I take to be evidence that the Internet is
becoming a world, not just a medium. A world is
coherent enough that its absences themselves have

I noticed this also when I examined how I came to
believe that during the first debate Bush was
wearing an Unidentified Rectangular Object that
probably (certainly not definitely) was a receiver
of some sort: I got there in part by thinking that
if there were a better explanation, it probably
would have surfaced on the Net.

Note that I am not recommending this way of
thinking, and I'm certainly not recommending my
conclusion. I'm merely observing that it shows that
the silence of the Net [5] is itself becoming
observable, a sign that an environment is becoming a

[1] http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/mtarchive/003582.html
[2] http://www.president.harvard.edu/speeches/2005/nber.html
[3] http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/mtarchive/003714.html
[4] http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2005/03/02/grading_larry_summers/";
[5] http://www.kmworld.com/publications/magazine/index.cfm?action=readarticle&article_id=1950&publication_id=125

+---------------------------------------------+ | COOL TOOL | | | | OnFolio's [1] new version supports Firefox. | | Yay! I had bought rev 1 a couple of months | | before I switched from Microsoft IE, and | | I've missed it. | | | | OnFolio does something really simple: When | | you come across a Web page you want to | | save, it makes a copy and puts it into a | | folder of your choosing. Of course you can | | do that yourself, but you end up with | | component parts all over. OnFolio gives | | you its own foldering system, lets you add | | keywords and descriptions, and makes the | | whole thing hassle-free. Of course, it | | does more than that, but that's the | | functionality that got me to buy it. It's | | a great way to organize your research. | | | | But here's my worry about OnFolio's fate. | | If other people are using OnFolio for the | | same basic service as I am, how long will | | it be before someone writes a free add-in | | to Firefox that saves Web pages into MHT | | format? I'm not convinced that the extra | | features in OnFolio are going be | | attractive to enough people... | | | | (Neattricks has an interesting set of | | reviews of what seems to be v1, with | | responses from OnFolio. [1]) | | [1] www.onfolio.com | | [2] http://www.neatnettricks.com/SoftwareReviews/review_onfolio.htm +---------------------------------------------+

| WHAT I'M PLAYING                            |
|                                             |
| I had been playing Doom 3. Great graphics   |
| and leap-out-of-the-seat scary, but         |
| ultimately, I'm sorry to say, I got bored.  |
| Plus, I couldn't kill the boss monster at   |
| the end, even after by going into god mode  |
| and giving myself all the weapons. (Yes, I  |
| know what the trick is to doing damage to   |
| it.) So, I'm not 100% sure I actually       |
| finished it.                                |
|                                             |
| Now I've moved on to Half Life 2, the       |
| greatest game ever created. It's got a      |
| semi-involving narrative, fantastic         |
| graphics, and perfectly balanced game play. |

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