Folksonomic Value Proposition part 2 Revised

“First hoary axiom: Value comes from scarcity. Take the icons of wealth in the industrial age&emdash;diamonds, gold, oil, and college degrees. These were deemed precious because they were scarce.” Kevin Kelly

It’s The Folksomy, Stupid
Folksonomies add value in economies governed by surplus, not scarcity. Folksonomic value narrows down what is otherwise overwhelming and indistinguishable. It’s value supplied in the form of recommendations, relevance, and knowledge and expertise.

In an earlier post on folksonomies I wrote the following: “I’m tempted to say that social media uniquely captures participation: a means of production that records its own consumption. And whose consumption is its distribution. Only electronic media can claim this, for it’s only with digital media that consumption does nothing to the original, each product being a copy already.”

The goal of folksonomies is the non-hierarchical and unbiased production of knowledge (value). This is no small thing and as an editoral pursuit it would have nobility and loft. As a goal for organizing participation, communicating to the public, and structuring social participation in a mass medium, well, it’s downright revolutionary. Put it to social software types to think small!

Be it in urls or their categories, folksonomies (known also as tagging, and tag cultures) aggregate the efforts of many into a system of pointers that, in theory at least, represents a filtered stock of knowledge. Involvement of active readers in the organization of online content creates a vast “knowledge base” that offers an alternative to search engines (power in the hands of one: google), online directories (too unwieldy, who drills down any more?), and editorial sites (who do you trust?). What’s more, tagging produces results that are more human than a search engine’s and less hierarchical than a directory’s. The process is participatory and open, which means (or ought to mean) that the results are dynamic, living, and democratic.

But the medium itself, that being the Web, plays a role in the production of folksonomies, as any medium plays a part in production of the content that comes out of it. There are far too many web sites out there, far too many blogs, news stories, etc., for any population to evaluate and organize without technical assistance. Information is not scarce&emdash;knowledge is scarce. Knowledge is the distillation of information into meaningful statements, judgments, valued insights and prescriptions. It’s always less than the gross stock of information, and producing it is a matter of time. And time, as they say, is short.

The Age of Communication Needs Your Attention
If the key resource during the industrial age was power (labor and natural), it was information during the information age. And I’d venture to say that in our current communication age, it’s attention that’s scarce. Attention, as in getting information in front of a person and claiming some measure of their consciousness (mind share). Time-based mass media are meant to create and focus attention over a strip of time (e.g. half hour TV shows); participatory media like the web (which came out of print) also deal in attention. But the fact of digital duplication only compounds the state of excess and overload that characterizes our communication media, setting up a tug of war between anonymous, news and information-rich media and personal communication tools. All of which lay claims on our time and attention. What marks the communication age is not a scarcity of material resources, or power, or labor, or even information. It’s scarcity of the user’s time and attention. And when the scarcity is not in the environment but it’s in the consumer (person), techniques for creating value switch also: from extraction to selection and value creation. And it’s this process of value creation that folksonomies are known for.

Now, every technology is grasped through its use, and social technologies are no exception. As much as we might want to describe a technology for its features and functions, these aren’t the sum of what it does. A more accurate take on technology would place it in the context of its use and then describe user practices as well as technical accomplishments. If you look at both, you see a technology that anticipates its uses and users, as well as a user community that knows its technologies. Neither the technical apparatus nor the minds and habits of the user community are enough in and of themselves to describe or explain use of social technologies. This tight mapping of technologies with social practices is my reason for being interested in what I call the social interface.

The Folksonomic Engine is Unique
The folksonomic production of knowledge is driven by a unique type of interaction: one that continuously maps the preferences of a living community’s values onto non-structured data submitted by that community. How it does so is where it’s unique: an iterative sorting and re-sorting that meets enough of the conditions of social situations for us to call it social. What are those conditions? That in any social situation, participants know what is going on, that knowing what is going on, they know how to proceed, and that they are competent participants (in this case, they know the technology’s strange mix of publishing and user-generated content).

The Link is a Sign and a Phrase Whose Click May Doesn’t Stick
Where the medium then intervenes in the production of knowledge that we get from a folksonomic culture is in how it claims, retains, archives, and sustains attention. In the case of the web, the medium’s vast depth and reach is tunneled into a constrained spatial presentation (your computer screen) in which the navigation from one thing/page to the next is often a hyper-linked word or phrase. In this somewhat bizarre fact is one the strange grammatical cornerstones of the web: that a phrase understood as a meaningful word is also associated with something other than its linguistic meaning. Two associations where there is normally just one (the phrase and its meaning). Analogous to speech, then, the web’s hyperlink is like an utterance. Only that we’re not talking here of the intended meaning of the web when it states the phrase “Top Ten” (if you utter the phrase “top ten,” I can distinguish between the meaning of the phrase and your intention in using it). I’d like then to introduce a term I have described elsewhere: social navigation. In the web 2.0 world, social navigation is that type of navigation that records and reflects its use. Items on a top ten list may change places as the list re-orders itself based on click throughs. It’s a kind of content ordering that reflects social usage, hence “social navigation.” No other medium is like this.

How is the folksonomy, as a participatory organization of content, affected by the medium? I would argue that the medium’s reflection of its own use, as we just cited with the example of a top ten list, carries social and cultural bias. To wit, competition for attention in which the “most popular” is neither selected for its intrinsic quality nor because it represents the good or the best. What makes something popular is difficult to foretell precisely because there’s an arbitrariness to it. The dynamics of communication, the hyperlink, the net, and countless other variables having little to do with the Object or thing itself combine in a self-reflexive social production resulting in popularity. Its unpredictable and capricious qualities qualify it for prime-time television excitement: watching more Americans turn up to vote for the Idol of American vocals than voted for our last un-President was exciting. (If only the real elections had been, too. On second thought, scratch that.) I’d argue that we see this self-reflexivity in both the power law and the long tail. It simply runs faster in the power law and more slowly in the tail. (A test of this hypothesis might be to remove all reflexivity and monitoring, all self-descriptions and updates from the systems that participate in these phenomena so that they are blind. If Idol, Netflix, Amazon etc gave us no stats, no poll results, no rankings, would we see the same results? I bet not. Conclusion? This is a communication phenomenon and system.)

Click the Lowest Common Denominator
Now how do we spend attention online? And how do social software sites and other social media capture it? Clicking ranks among the easiest to track and act on. But in part because attention is the achilles heel of online publishing, the medium’s particular form of ranking by click can become a popularity contest even when seeming democratic, unbiased, and participatory. Clicks are easy and cheap, and capturing a link click through offers little granularity in terms of user intent, or degree of interest. All clicks are equal, even when some are more equal than others. (I can click to a profile on a dating site that really interests me, and click to see the profile of a person who viewed me just out of curiosity.) The data captured makes no distinction between the one and the other click. The vote, as a click, is a choice of the lowest-common-denominator kind. In digital audio they call this the quantization error: where a point on a waveform has to be assigned a whole number, even if in the analog waveform it falls between two points. In the binary logic of click throughs, we can capture only a yes or a no. Increasing the system’s ability to handle ambiguities, to qualify ones and zeroes, will be the challenge facing social media as I see it. The social interface is yet young. But if you believe that technologies can serve us, and better society, then the art of mediating social relationships promises a great deal of interesting challenges!

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