[joho] JOHO - May 04, 2007 - Special Book edition

  • From: David Weinberger <self@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: joho@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sat, 05 May 2007 18:55:08 -0400

Journal of the
Hyperlinked Organization
March 4, 2007
Editor: David Weinberger (self@xxxxxxxxxxx)
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  | CONTENTS                                    |
  |                                             |
  | CAN TAGS BE WRONG?: You tag it potato. I    |
  | tag it tomato. Shall we just call the       |
  | whole thing off?                            |
  |                                             |
  | MORE OF EVERYTHING: The Internet is a swamp |
  | of lies. The Internet is a haven of         |
  | knowledge. Yes, it is. That's why it's      |
  | called "the Internets."                     |
  |                                             |
  | TWITTERING AWAY: What looks trivial may     |
  | turn out to be, up close, not so trivial    |
  | after all.                                  |
  |                                             |
  | BOOK NOTES: "Everything Is Miscellaneous"   |
  | launched a couple of days ago. You thought  |
  | I wasn't going to mention it?               |
  |                                             |
  | BOGUS CONTEST: Can you come up with the     |
  | Everything Is Miscellaneous elevator pitch? |
  | Lord knows, I can't.                        |
  | IT'S A JOHO WORLD AFTER ALL                 |
  |                                             |
  | I have become the compleat narcissist. My   |
  | book launched on May 1, and in the run up   |
  | to it, I've become totally self-involved.   |
  | Everything, from the real reason Alberto    |
  | Gonzales hasn't resigned to those new       |
  | constellations that spell out my initials   |
  | (they're really there! I'm not making this  |
  | up!) all center on me and my new damn book. |
  | It's  all about me, baby!                   |
  |                                             |
  | Isn't it?                                   |
  |                                             |
  | If you'd like to enter the David-centric    |
  | universe, I'm tracking reviews on a page [1]|
  | at the Everything Is Miscellaneous site [2].|
  | Occasionally, though, something non-me      |
  | related appears on my blog (JohoTheBlog).   |
  |                                             |
  | Sorry to be so wrapped up in myself.        |
  | It's probably less fun for me than it is    |
  | for you...                                  |
  |                                             |
  | [1] http://www.everythingismiscellaneous.com/reviews/
  | [2] http://www.everythingismiscellaneous.com/
  | MEETUP                                      |
  |                                             |
  | On May 9, 6-8 pm, Dabble [1] and Yahoo's    |
  | Brickhouse (3223 Mission St.) are holding   |
  | a meetup for bloggers as part of my book    |
  | tour. There'll be some (limited number of)  |
  | free copies of my book, and I hope there'll |
  | be a bunch of bloggers who want to get      |
  | together and talk. See you there perhaps?   |
  | [1] http://www.dabble.com                   |

  |               BOOK TOUR                     |
  |                                             |
  | For reasons I only partially understand but |
  | fully trust, Times Books has set up a book  |
  | tour that mainly has me talking within the  |
  | walls of big companies. But some of the     |
  | upcoming events are public, including:      |
  |                                             |
  | Raleigh, NC: May 8, 7pm - Quail Ridge Books |
  | (3522 Wade Ave, Ridgewood Shopping Center)  |
  |                                             |
  | San Francisco: May 9, 6-8pm - Bloggers get- |
  | together at Brickhouse (see above)          |
  |                                             |
  | Sunnyvale, CA: May 11, 11am - Yahoo, talk   |
  | with Bradley Horowitz                       |
  |                                             |
  | Menlo Park, CA : May 15, 7:30pm - Kepler's  |
  | Books (1010 El Camino Real)                 |
  |                                             |
  | I'll also be on the radio, including on     |
  | "Tech Nation" on KQED, May 15, 2:30-3:30    |
  | PDT.                                        |

  |                                             |
  | I've done a series of podcast interviews    |
  | about topics in my book, sponsored by       |
  | Wired and the Harvard Berkman Center. The   |
  | first one is now up. [1] It's with Cory     |
  | Doctorow, writer and digital activist.      |
  | He's also wicked smart. A few years ago,    |
  | he published an article called "Metacrap"[2]|
  | about why explicit metadata doesn't cut     |
  | the mustard, a theme echoed in my book.     |
  | That's what we start out talking about,     |
  | although it ranges a bit from there.        |
  |                                             |
  | The series will be posted, about one a week,|
  | at the Wired business blog site [3]. Coming |
  | up are interviews with:                     |
  |                                             |
  | * Arianna Huffington of HuffingtonPost      |
  | * Craig Newmark of CraigsList               |
  | * astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson        |
  | * Kayak's Paul English                      |
  | * Richard Sambrook of the BBC World         |
  |   Service                                   |
  | * Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia                  |
  | * Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of the DailyKos   |
  |                                             |
  | Next up: Kos! We talk about the politics of |
  | letting everyone talk. and everyone decide  |
  | whose voice will be the loudest.            |
  |                                             |
  | [1] Interview of Cory:                      |
  | http://blog.wired.com/business/2007/05/metacrap_and_fl.html
  | [2] Cory's MetaCrap article:                |
  | http://www.well.com/~doctorow/metacrap.htm  |
  | [3] Wired business blog:                    |
  | http://blog.wired.com/business              |
  | FEEL FREE TO BUY MY BOOK...                 |
  |                                             |
  | ...And you want a fresh new copy, not one   |
  | of those greasy used ones. Who knows where  |
  | it's been? No, you want a nice shiny copy   |
  | of your own. Not for my sake, you           |
  | understand. It's just for that new copy     |
  | aroma. Mmmmm! Smells like commas!           |
  |                                             |
  | You can buy it online, of course, but don't |
  | forget your friendly bookstore right around |
  | the corner.                                 |
  |                                             |
  | Online vendors: http://isbn.nu/0805080430   |


I was on Christopher Lydon's Radio Open Source
program last week (you can hear it here [1]) and Tim
Spalding, creator of LibraryThing.com [2], asked me
an excellent question: Can tags be wrong? What if
everyone in a room is an idiot and tags Moby-Dick as

I sputtered for a moment and then came up with the
perfect response: "Is there a wrong way to underline
a book?" Brilliant! It surrounds a tiny germ of
truth with a massive coating of tasty misdirection,
like rising to a challenge in one's proof of Gödel's
Incompleteness Theorem by faking a coughing fit. Tim
afterwards sent me a thoughtful and thought-
provoking message. So blame him for the following...

Personal tags are not about truth. If I tag a photo
of the Bay Bridge in SF as "golden gate" because I
think that's what it is, I'm wrong. But, when I go
to look for that photo, my tag is still useful to me
so long as I'm still wrong about which bridge is
which. Of course, I might have tagged it "golden
gate" because I'm doing a report on bridges near the
Golden Gate Bridge, in which case my tag was true,
even though a stranger who is not privy to my mental
innards would assume I'm mistaken. But many personal
tags aren't primarily about truth at all: If I tag
the photo "homesick," "examine closely later," or
"write poem about," the value of the tag isn't in
its representation of something true about the
object. These tags aren't truthy, to use Stephen
Colbert's term.

It's a different matter when we go from the private
and individual to the public and social. Now we're
in the realm of folksonomies, i.e., the topology of
tags generated by lots of strangers. At its
simplest, a folksonomy reports on which tags are
most popular for particular objects, and which tags
are most popular over all. It can also notice
relationships among the tags - how they cluster. It
can also notice trends over time. It can also report
on which tags are most popular with particular
groups. Folksonomies can get as subtle as our
analytic skills allow.

Folksonomies get their value by reflecting the
viewpoint of the plurality, not what an authority
thinks is or ought to be the viewpoint. Tim's email
message provides a couple of examples of how crowds
can steer us wrong, or at least get in the way:

    I'd love to use the "Classics" tag, but what
    means Greco-Roman Philology to me means Jane
    Austen and Charles Dickens to others. And what I
    know as Christianity is utterly swamped by
    LibraryThing's enormous evangelical Protestant
    contingent. "Christian living" is, in the
    abstract, a topic that interests me. But that's
    a term of art in evangelical circles, and its
    tag page is made up of books I'd pay to avoid.

The folksonomy in this case makes tags less useful
for those who are outside the bell curve of usage
for a particular term. And it's easy to imagine
examples that are not just problematic for the
minority but are actually offensive: Suppose the
primary tag for Segolene Royal were "hot" or the
primary tag for the Pope were "public enemy."

Offensive is one thing, but can a folksonomy be
flat-out factually wrong? Suppose the main tag for
"The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," an anti-Jew
forgery, was "history"? While we cannot know what's
going on in the heads of all the people who tagged
it that way, it seems as straightforward a
misclassification as tagging bats as "bird."
Likewise, the folksonomy would be a true reflection
of the popularity of false beliefs.

I do think it's a little more complex than that,
though. If we took a poll about either the
"Protocols" or bats and the results showed that the
majority of those polled believed "Protocols" is
true and bats are birds, we wouldn't say the poll
was wrong. We'd say the people were wrong.

But that's too easy an out. Folksonomies are not
just reports. They're also tools. They thus
reinforce belief systems, since we believe (rightly)
that what most people believe is a (generally)
reliable guide to truth. Folksonomies make visible,
and thus magnify, the effect of belief systems.
Sometimes that's exactly what we don't want to have
happen. Crowds are wise, but only in particular
circumstances. The book "The Wisdom of Crowds" [3]
by James Surowiecki is not a hippie manifesto about
sharing the love. It's quite specific about when the
aggregated opinions and guesses of crowds do better
than individuals. Folksonomies do not meet those
criteria. Crowds also do well with the truth when
they're not mere crowds but are engaged in some form
of back and forth, AKA "conversation." Folksonomies
don't generally arise that way either.

Part of the problem is with the very term
"folksonomy." It works so well because it's a pun.
As such, it implicitly suggests that folksonomies
replace taxonomies. But our aim should not be to
replace an obsolete, top-down taxonomy with a better
one that's been generated from the bottom up. The
main problem with taxonomies is that, no matter how
good they are - and many are so good that we would
be fools to discard them totally - they are simply
one way of organizing a domain. A folksonomically-
developed taxonomy suffers from the same weakness,
although it may well be more useful than that which
it is replacing. The problem isn't just the source.
It's the singleness.

Far better are environments that organize themselves
dynamically around our context and project. All the
information others have generated enriches the
domain, so that the system knows that although most
people tag photos of San Francisco "SF," it should
also show me the photos tagged "Frisco," and if I'm
searching for vacation spots, maybe it'd be useful
to show me some Napa vineyards as well. I may want
to see what most people mean, but it'd be nice to be
shown some new takes on the topic, and it's
essential that I can use the folksonomy to browse
on demand in my own minority way. (What Flickr.com
and del.icio.us do with "interestingness" is itself
an interesting example of finding what's, well,
interesting but not necessarily at the top of the
popularity charts.)

If we divide up our books into fact and fiction
piles using a folksonomy that tells us that the
"Protocols" is fact, and if Moby-Dick gets put in
the "penguin" pile, then the folksonomy is in some
meaningful sense false. But if we allow multiple
folksonomies, the folksonomy becomes not a statement
of how the world is ordered but a reflection of the
different ways a crowd orders material - some ways
wrong, some right, and some just useful.

Traditional taxonomies gain value by settling
ambiguities and disputes, at least for purposes of
navigation. Folksonomies instead need to reflect the
controversy and confusion that make crowds even wiser
when they don't agree.

[1] Open Source Radio show:
[2] LibraryThing:
[3] Wisdom of Crowds:


Whatever case you want to make about the Internet,
you can make. Want to show that it contains the most
wretched ideas and images? There's a whole bunch of
sites you can point to. Want to prove that it is the
salvation of democracy and rational discourse?
Google and ye shall find. Want to show that it's a
haven for red-headed sociopaths who raise chihuahuas
for their milk? Yup, you can probably find those
sites, too.

So now when people complain that on the Internet
people flame one another, or they live in echo
chambers (and notice that those two claims are
mutually exclusive), or that people on the Net
encourage the destruction of all morals, I don't
disagree. All those things happen. But the full
truth is, I believe, that on the Internet there's
more of everything. There's more porn, there's more
righteousness. There's more anger, there's more
support. There are more sites where people gang up
on their enemies and more sites where love
transgresses its boundaries.

More of everything.


I've been twittering [1]. I'm not entirely sure why,
and I feel too old for it, but I'm finding it
fascinating. And more than that.

Twitter and other such sites (e.g., Jaiku [2]) are
"microblogs" where you can post very short messages
(e.g., 140 characters) and see the scroll of
messages posted by your buddies. You can Twitter via
the Web site, IM, or SMS on your cell phone.

In general, people seem to post what they're doing
at the moment, plus occasional quotes and ideas of
interest. So, by definition it should be trivial.
But, Twitter is about the intimacy of details.
Without it, I'd hear from people maybe once a year,
when I run into them at a conference or they send a
holiday newsletter. (Actually, I don't get any of
those any more. Two explanations: 1. Blogging has
obviated them. 2. Nobody likes me. Third
explanation: Both of the above.) We then engage in
the odd ritual of narrative construction called
"catching up." We give the headlines in each of the
big areas in our lives. The kids are fine, the job
sucks, we botoxed the cat, etc. But with Twitter,
you see the day-to-day life of your friends.

A lot of it of course I don't care about. But it
turns out that I do like hearing that Paolo
Valdemarin [3], an Italian friend I see every couple
of years, is sitting on his porch, drinking wine and
watching the sunset. I do like hearing that Jessamyn
West[4], who I unfortunately run into very rarely,
is working on a presentation to librarians, which
she then shares with her Twitter pals. I do care
that BradSucks[5], a Canadian musician I've only met
once, is rehearsing for a live show. This is, to
mangle Linda Stone's [6] phrase, continuous partial
friendship, and it's a welcome addition to the
infrequent, intermittent friendships we're able to
manage in the real world.

It helps that the volume of flow is so impossibly
high that there's zero expectation that anyone is
keeping up. "Hey, dude, why didn't you know that? I
like twittered it two days ago?" is just not a
reasonable complaint.

I don't know if Twitter or one of its new-and-
improved competitors will survive, or what it will
become. It's hot at the moment, which usually means
that it's not going to be hot soon. But it's a
powerful platform for something, and even in its
current state, it addresses our desire to fill every
interstice with social connections.

[1] http://www.twitter.com
[2] http://www.jaiku.com
[3] http://paolo.evectors.it/
[4] http://www.jessamyn.com/
[5] http://www.BradSucks.net
[6] http://lindastone.net/


My book is launched. The tour is about to begin. I
am awaiting something. I don't know what, but I'm
anxious about it.

There are a couple of places that do pre-publication
reviews. PublishersWeekly [1] liked it pretty much,
but thought it wasn't practical enough for a
business book. Booklist [2] gave it a good review,
finding it "thought-provoking" and "entertaining."
(Thank you, Booklist. PublishersWeekly, go to your
room and think about what you did.) My publisher has
been alerted that a couple of big league outfits
have reviews in the works. This makes me happy and
also means I won't be able to keep food down until
the reviews come out, and possibly ever after.

Barnes and Noble's is featuring the book on the "new
non-fiction" table at the front of their stores
nationwide for a couple of weeks. That's a big deal.
(Thank you, Times Books!)

I'm especially looking forward to whatever bloggery
comes out of this. Do you know how different it is
to write a book when your readers can talk back?
It's thrilling.

So now I wait. And twitter.

LATER: The bloggers are weighing in. Cory Doctorow
[3] of BoingBoing.net gave it a rave: "This is a
hell of a book" ... an "instant classic." Karen
Schneider [4] at the American Library Association
site gave it a great review. Ethan Zuckerman [5]
compares it to drinking a mojito (which he means in
a positive way). Peter Morville [6] finds it
"inspiring," even while taking issue with some of

I love bloggers.

[1] PublishersWeekly:
[2] BookList:
[3] Cory Doctorow (BoingBoing):
[4] Karen Schneider:
[5] Ethan Zuckerman:
[6] Peter Morville:


Now that my book is actually published (wait, have I
mentioned that already?), you'd think I'd know how
to answer the question, "So, what's it about?"
without the use of Powerpoints and the phrase "But
it's actually more interesting than I'm making it
sound." Here's the official version of the current
Elevator Pitch, which you may actually hear me
spontaneously recite word for word:

    We know how to organize things in the real
    world, whether it's a store, a front page, or
    your kitchen. No matter whether you arrange
    things alphabetically or by size, you always
    follow two basic principles: Everthing has a
    place, and two things can't go in the same
    place. But, online, those principles don't hold,
    so we're inventing new ones. For example, a
    physical photo has to go in one album. But a
    digital photo of Uncle Bernie on the beach on
    his birthday can go in as many digital albums as
    you want -- trips, relatives, beaches,
    birthdays, funny sunburns, bad comb-overs... And
    it's not just photos. The new principles for how
    we organize ideas, information and knowledge are
    transforming media, education, politics,
    science, and business - upsetting the old order
    and the old authorities.

So, your challenge is to make that half as long and
twice as compelling. And this time, I'm even
offering a real prize, although it's pretty chintzy:
A copy of "Everything Is Miscellaneous." Best of
all, I will have one of my many assistants
personally sign my name to it!


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  • » [joho] JOHO - May 04, 2007 - Special Book edition