Tag Archives: social media

What is social about social software?

Before we forget all about the label Social Software and move on to Web 2.0, 3.0, or whatever comes next, I think it would be useful to dwell a little bit on the use of the word ‘social’ as applied in this term. What does it mean for software to be social? Intuitively, we know that Social Software is software that fulfills some sort of social function, allowing us to form social connections, and perform social activities that give shape to social groups. But as evidenced by the number of times I just used the word ‘social’ to define Social Software, it is clear that what we have here is a tautology: by taking for granted what we understand by ‘social,’ the adjective in question both provides an absolute definition and at the same time manages to define nothing.

This point became increasingly clear while I was reading Bruno Latour’s latest book, Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory (2005, Oxford University Press). Latour is critical of the way in which the concept of the social has become a sort of “black box” which we use, perhaps out of laziness, to bracket all sorts of connections that should be explored in more detail. His goal in this introduction to ANT (actor-network theory) is therefore to “redefine the notion of social by going back to its original meaning and making it able to trace connections again” (p. 1).

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Teaching Social Software with Social Software: A report

Abstract

This post discusses some of the lessons learned during a graduate course I taught at Teachers College, Columbia University. Social Software Affordances was offered during the Fall of 2005, and 13 graduate students from the Communication, Computing and Technology in Education (CCTE) program at TC enrolled in the course. The main goal of the course was for students to acquire proficiency in the use of blogs, wikis, RSS feeds and distributed classification systems while engaging in a critical analysis of the affordances of social software (what the software makes possible and what it impedes). The class also asked students to apply their newly acquired social software skills and knowledge to promote a social cause or project of their choosing. The dynamics and outcomes of the course are discussed below.

Important Links

Structure of the course

The syllabus identifies the following three objectives for the course:

  1. The class will develop competency in the use of blogs, wikis, distributed classification systems, and RSS feeds.
  2. The class will perform a state-of-the-art review of social software tools, applications, and theory, focusing on a critical assessment of the affordances of social software.
  3. Class members will conduct an individual exercise on the potential of social software to effect change at a personal and social level.

The class functioned as a distributed research community. There were some classroom sessions, but most of the work happened online. Students were responsible for collecting information about social software, sharing it with their peers, organizing it, and analyzing it individually and collectively:

  • A distributed classification system was used to aggregate and organize information.
  • RSS feeds were used to share that information with everyone in the class.
  • Individual blogs (each with its own RSS feed) were used to analyze and comment on the research and readings.
  • The class as a whole edited a wiki project that was collectively defined. [I believe that a similar structure could be applied to a course on any subject matter, by the way.]

Together, the class addressed questions such as: What is ‘social’ about social software? How is the notion of community being redefined by social software? How is social agency shared between humans and code in social software? What are the social repercussions of unequal access to social software? Additionally, each student undertook a project which tackled the question of whether social software can be an effective tool for individual and social change.

Although all the class activities and tools functioned in conjunction, in the interest of organization I will discuss each one separately.

Distributed Research: The Power of Many

The distributed classification system referred to above consisted of using del.icio.us to bookmark items related to social software with the tag ‘ccte.’ The resulting (and ongoing) collection can be seen at http://del.icio.us/tag/ccte/ (add this RSS link to your aggregator to subscribe to the feed). All students were expected to contribute items throughout the semester. Students were also expected to subscribe to the RSS feed generated by del.icio.us as a way to keep track of all contributions. Class members then explored the items they were interested in and discussed them in their individual blogs, often in the context of the books assigned as course readings (listed in the syllabus).

One student remarked on the significant impact that distributed classification and aggregation had on his daily online activities:

During the course of the semester, I have come to realize that aggregators have changed my social interaction with computers a great deal… I am pleased to report that I am spending much more time constructing information by writing emails and making web pages than I have been in the past. This is largely due to the fact that I spend much less time surfing for information. (link)

But beyond the benefits of better information management, the real purpose of this exercise was to turn students into contributors, not mere recipients, of knowledge about social software. Each student became a researcher who could add something to our study of the topic (while at the same time build their own collection of resources tagged according to their individual classification schemes). Of course this required that I, as the instructor, be willing to give up the role of being the sole source of information. But in fact this was beneficial for me as well, as I became exposed to more research, resources and ideas than I could identify on my own. My interest and knowledge of the topic, in other words, was augmented by the contributions of my students.

Blogging: Finding an Individual Voice

Contributing to a pool of resources was one thing, but a detailed examination of social software required a more individualized space for reflection, which is why everyone in the class was asked to maintain a blog throughout the course (only two students in the class already had blogs). Of course, this activity was also intended to expose students to issues of identity, voice, posting frequency, community formation, etc. that accompany the use of blogs. In his individual self-evaluation at the end of the course, one student summarized the experience of being introduced to this new form of communication:

For the first time, I really delved into the world of blogging, examining blogs of many types, reading ‘blogs of note’ and award winners. I really enjoyed the convoluted paths wound from one blog to the next by clicking on blog rolls. Eventually I started to get a feeling for how things worked. I explored the possibilities for add-ons for my blog. I added Sitemeter to measure traffic, included syndicated feeds from del.icio.us and feed digest, and customized the templates from each to match the look of my site… I started to get anonymous hits and comments on my blog. Even though there were not many, it was very exciting. I began to see the addictive nature of blogging, and the excitement of participating in a large, distributed conversation.

The blog also served as a journal of each student’s engagement with the readings. Instead of a fixed reading schedule, I experimented with letting students read and report on readings in the order that interested or made sense to them. My hope was that by reading a review of a book or chapter posted by one of their peers, students would be motivated to read that section as well (if it matched with their individual research interests at the moment). The motivation would be different than in the case of me telling students what to read, when. This strategy worked fairly well, although based on student feedback, I might supplement it with a ‘map’ of readings and topics to let students better determine what they should read if they are interested in a particular topic. I might also create wiki spaces in which to collect reviews and comments of the different readings, to provide a sense of synchronicity and continuity.

As far as other suggestions for improvements in the area of blogs, Alex Halavais suggested that students should tag their blog posts as well. I think this would help students recognize the connection between their own blog posts and emerging folksonomies, and I hope to implement this strategy in the next offering of the course.

Wikis: Synthesis and Collaboration

While individual reflection was encouraged through blogging, I thought it was also important for students to synthesize their knowledge in a wiki project that they could author collectively. After some debate, students agreed to start a wiki to collect social software design patterns. Jonah Bossewitch, a student in the course, proposed that our efforts be combined with those of the Annenberg Center’s Social Software in the Academy Workshop. The resulting Design Patterns of Social Computing Wiki attempts to capture the essence of various problems in social software and illustrate best practices and good designs that have been employed to tackle them. We consider this a work in progress, and hope that other interested parties become involved in this ongoing project, which could be a useful resource for the research community.

Issue Entrepreneurship: Putting the ‘social’ in social software

I wanted the course to be more than just a review of social software and a theoretical discussion of its affordances. In my own work (c.f. Mejias, 2005, A Nomad’s Guide to Learning and Social Software), I argue that the true potential of social software lies in helping us figure out how to integrate our online and offline social experiences. Thus, social software must live up to its name by relating to the individual’s everyday social practices, and inculcate a desire to connect to the world as a whole, not just the parts that exist online. Furthermore, in order for software to be truly ‘social,’ it must help develop in the minority who has access to the technology a responsibility for converting its benefits into benefits for a larger part of society.

With this goal in mind, the class was asked to address the question of whether social software can be an effective tool for individual and social change. Each learner undertook an ‘issue entrepreneurship’ assignment (c.f. Agre, 2004, The Practical Republic), which involved identifying a social cause the student was interested in and using social software tools to attempt to make a meaningful contribution to the cause at three different levels: the personal, the local, and the global. Learners used their individual blogs to post updates on their progress, inviting comments from their peers. This was by far the most difficult project of the course, but perhaps in the long term the most rewarding as well. Students were informed that they would not be graded on whether they succeeded or failed in making a meaningful contribution to their cause, as long as they documented their experience and could discuss how social software contributed to their success or failure.

Projects ranged widely in nature and scope. Here’s a brief summary (I’ve included links only to the projects that are further along in terms of progress; more information can be found on each student’s blog, listed in the Course Blog):

  • An information clearinghouse and online community for science educators in the developing world
  • An initiative to promote podcasting as an educational technology at Teachers College
  • An online community space for the Youth Venture Media Network (link)
  • A proposal for an online network of exchange student alumni to promote global citizenship among teens and college-aged students
  • A group blog and information feed for raising awareness about bilingual education in New York City (link)
  • A wiki/knowledgebase for West Siders for Responsible Development, Inc., a group protesting plans to build two towering buildings on Broadway between 99th and 100th streets (link)
  • A proposal for a community wiki for people interested in Israel and various aspects of Jewish life
  • A blog and a wiki to promote awareness of accessibility and assistive technology issues at Seton Hall University (link)
  • A proposal for a Distributed Community Bookshelf system to encourage the sharing of knowledge and resources in a community-minded and environmentally-friendly way (link)

The goal of the project was to get students to think about using social software to promote social change. It was expected that students would find major obstacles in the way, as meaningful social change is hard work. In fact, many projects failed in their first iteration, and students had to re-conceptualize their proposals. I tried to make these frustrations part of the learning experience, as well as the realization that there is only so much that the technology can do (part of our discussion of the affordances of social software). As the following testimonials attest, students consider their projects far from over, but at the same time they are willing to continue to work on them after the semester is over because it is something they feel passionate about (to paraphrase the rhetorical question posed by one student: ‘Why do we need a class to get us involved in this type of activism?’):

I am proud of my efforts thus far to introduce West Siders to the potential benefits of social software. At the same time, the process of change has been slower and more frustrating than I anticipated. If a primary goal of this project was to learn firsthand how hard it is to build networks and foster change using social software, that goal was certainly achieved. (link)

Another student remarked:

Even though it’s the end of the semester, I feel it’s just the beginning of my issue entrepreneurship project. It makes sense (to me), though that only after putting some time and thought into studying how social software works, that I would be ready to use it effectively to pursue my issue. (link)

One student had this to say about the process of re-conceptualizing his proposal:

So I started my ambitious (albeit empty) Science Demystified Wiki and sent out e-mail notices to persons I felt [would be willing to] join the forum. I was however quickly humbled after receiving a few responses, most of which were surprisingly discouraging. However, after reading some literature – especially Barabasi’s book: Linked – and being enlightened on how sustainable networks are created and maintained, I realized why creating such a forum from scratch was going to be virtually an impossible task. The best option for me then was to join an already established network, participate actively and meaningfully so as to gain credibility, and possibly move towards carving a niche out of that network which will then ultimately grow to become a formidable resource as earlier envisaged. (link)

One advantage of blogging about their projects as they unfolded (as opposed to waiting until the end of the class to present them) was that students recognized that they were not the only ones encountering problems, and they were able to support and critique one another. One idea for improving this project is to include, as part of the readings for the course, a text on managing change (something like The Tipping Point, perhaps).

Conclusions

As the diversity of the work produced and the depth of student’s observations indicates, I think the course was successful in what it set out to achieve: to provide students with hands on experience of social software, to get them to think critically about its affordances, and to allow them to experiment with using it to direct social change. As way of conclusion, I would like to quote from various final observations that students made (some of them are in haiku form, an alternative option I offered students to summarize their thinking):

How is the notion of community being redefined by social software?
With social software
Closeness is not about space
But shared needs and goals (link)

Can social software be an effective tool for individual and social change?
Certainly. Apart from broadening individual perspectives and as such leading to attitudinal and behavioral change, social software is also being extensively used to organize pressure groups whose collective voice often result in societal change. (link)

What aspects of our humanity stand to gain or suffer as a result of our use of and reliance on social software?
It is the construction of ourselves in relation to our new concepts of communities that will be most affected by our reliance on social software. (link)

What are the social repercussions of unequal access to social software?
access isn’t enough,
’cause the curve is steep and linked
Mister Long-Tail Man. (link)

How is social agency shared between humans and code in social software?
Social agency is shared between the individual and the software by splitting the task of establishing and maintaining bonds between individuals. (link)

One student summarized her progress thus:

Today I can call myself a reflective social software user. I’m able to decide which social software tool (or combination of tools) is better in a specific situation based on the pros and cons of each one of them. However, I cannot say that I’m a specialist in this field: only now I understand that I have more questions than answers. (link)

I am looking forward to teaching this course again, after making some improvements based on student’s feedback.

The author wishes to thank the members of SSA05 for making this a great learning experience.

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A Nomad’s Guide to Learning and Social Software

UPDATE: For those who rather read the article online, I have pasted it below.

Back from Barcelona, where we had a wonderful time! Currently swamped with work and life, so the summary of the congress is going to have to wait a bit. However, I wanted to share the link to an article I just wrote for Knowledge Tree. The following is from their abstract:

Innovations in educational technology are often seen as
opportunities to transform learning, and social software (blogs, wikis,
social bookmarking, etc.) is no exception. But are the tensions between
pedagogies and social software the result of attempts to make the
latter conform to traditional teaching practices, or are they signs of
real opportunities for rethinking learning processes?

In this article, Ulises explores the role that social software can play in new models of learning and participating in society. While social software can connect learners to new resources and to each other in new ways, he argues that its true potential lies in helping us figure out how to integrate our online and offline social experiences. Thus, social software must live up to its name by relating to the individual’s everyday social practices, which include interacting with people online as well as people without access to these technologies. He concludes that social software can positively impact pedagogy by inculcating a desire to reconnect to the world as a whole, not just the social parts that exist online.

Additionally, there’s also going to be a live panel with me and the other authors of this edition of the journal tomorrow, November 2. Unfortunately, since the main location is in Australia, the time is at midnight US EST. Perhaps a bit too late for most of you (and me!).

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Social agency and the intersection of communities and networks (draft)

by Ulises A. Mejias

Abstract

Different meanings have been ascribed to the concepts of ‘community’ and ‘network’ throughout history, and particularly since the emergence of the internet. In this paper, I suggest definitions for these two concepts based on how social agency is distributed between humans and code, and outline a set of research categories for studying communities and networks in terms of the types of involvement they offer, the kinds of participants that inhabit them, and the types of action they afford. I then discuss Agre’s (2004) model of civic participation to illustrate how action that unfolds across online and offline social realities can engender increased relevancy of the world (ontological nearness).

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The Unfixedness of Knowledge: Discourse, Genre, and Mode in Wikipedia

Wikipedia (http://wikipedia.org/) is the world’s largest online free-content encyclopedia. This means that unlike the content of traditional encyclopedias, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, the content of Wikipedia is free. But perhaps a more important distinction is that Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, at any time. This may sound counterproductive, as the purpose of an encyclopedia —one generally assumes— is to fix knowledge, not to open it up to constant and unsupervised manipulation. However, Wikipedia is proving to be a successful endeavor: as of the time of this writing (April 2005), it contained approximately 1.5 million articles in more than 90 different languages. Wikipedia is challenging our ideas about the permanence of knowledge, and in the process allowing us to ask interesting questions about the nature of large scale online collaboration, the act of critical reading, and the emergence of new social literacies. In this paper, I will briefly discuss some characteristics of Wikipedia, mostly from the perspective of Gunther Kress’ (2003) concepts of discourse, genre, and mode.Kress (2003) argues that “[c]ommunication —whatever the mode— always happens as text” and that “text is the result of social action” (p. 47). Thus, we can examine Wikipedia as a text by asking the following questions: 1) “’what is at issue’, ‘what is being talked about’” (p. 47) or in other words, how institutions shape the Wikipedia text (what Kress calls a text’s discourse); 2) how the text is shaped by the social relations of participants, in other words, “who is involved, with what purposes, what roles, what power, in what environments” (p. 47) (what Kress calls genre); and 3) how the text is being shaped by its material form (what Kress calls mode, or a “culturally and socially fashioned resource for representation and communication” (p. 45)).

What goes on in Wikipedia? What is the “text” about? Which institutions determine this? Wikipedia strives to be an authentic encyclopedia. This means that the content consists of encyclopedic articles (alphabetical arrangement is inconsequential, given the non-linear access nature of the web). The text, in other words, is a compendium of human knowledge written in an accessible format. Although there is considerable buzz about the ‘openness’ of Wikipedia, how the text is written (its ‘tone,’ ‘voice’ or ‘style,’ in common terms) is established by the founders of Wikipedia, a non-profit organization called the Wikimedia Foundation. The Wikimedia Foundation has established policies regarding the ‘tone’ of Wikipedia: “Wikipedia requires that its contributors observe a “neutral point of view” when writing… If achieved, Wikipedia would not be written from a single “objective” point of view, but rather fairly present all views on an issue, attributed to their adherents in a neutral way.” (retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia on April 19, 2005). A detailed look at how ‘neutrality’ is constructed in this context, and to what degree Wikipedia articles reflect or fail to reflect this neutrality is beyond the scope of this paper, but an issue that deserves being raised nonetheless. Suffice it to say for the moment that the discourse in Wikipedia is anything but open or haphazard, but intentionally shaped by the Wikimedia Foundation’s goals of creating an ‘authentic’ encyclopedia, and social conventions of what an encyclopedia should ‘sound’ like.

While what goes on in Wikipedia is an interesting story, how it is happening is equally so, at least from a technological perspective. The device that allows anyone to manipulate the content of Wikipedia at any time is a web program called a wiki. What makes wikis innovative knowledge management tools is that they save and archive every change made to a web page, so that not only can anyone edit any page, but anyone can also revert back to a previous version if they wish. In this manner, users can create new pages, edit existing pages, completely re-write pages, or revert to older versions of pages at will. Additionally, users can discuss pages or suggest changes. And the technology behind this is fairly simple to use, so that most computer users can learn the skills required to edit Wikipedia articles in minutes.

Who participates in Wikipedia? What different roles do they play? In order to meet its goal of “creat[ing] and distribut[ing] a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language” (Wales, 2005), Wikipedia relies not on professional editors or writers, but on volunteer authors. According to the Wikipedia site, “authors can be asked to defend or clarify their work, and disputes are readily seen” (retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia on April 19, 2005). The Wikipedia community believes that exposing all content to multiple authors will eventually increase, not decrease its quality (this sentiment is based on an open source philosophy of many programmers approaching the bugs of a software program).

While volunteer authors are responsible for writing all Wikipedia articles, they are by no means its only users. Apart from authors, there are other users that can be classified as browsers, vandals, and administrators. Browsers are users who go to Wikipedia to look up content, but who do not participate in any of the authoring activities. According to the Wikipedia website, the domain receives close to 50 million hits a day. Most of this visits are by browsers. Vandals are functionally similar to authors, except that in their case their intention is not to create useful knowledge, but to destroy it. As mentioned above, wikis make it easy to deal with vandalism by reverting to a previous version of a page. Some types of vandalism are blatant, while others are harder to detect, but both have negative repercussions for the Wikipedia community. Lastly, administrators are volunteers who have accumulated enough trust in the community to be given high-level functions, such as ‘locking’ a page (preventing further changes), deleting or moving pages, expelling users from the community, etc. The following quote encapsulates the distribution of power in Wikipedia: “Its articles are not controlled by any particular user or editorial group, and decision-making on the content and editorial policies of Wikipedia is instead done by consensus and occasionally majority vote, though Jimmy Wales [the founder of Wikipedia] retains final judgment” (retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia on April 19, 2005). As a result, at any given moment the text of a specific article indirectly reflects the application of these levels of decision-making, which become directly visible only in the log of changes to the page, found in the page’s History tab.

What material shape, or mode, does the text take, and how is this mode socially constructed? While visual and audio media are present, Wikipedia’s primary mode is written text, or to be more precise, hypertext. This has a number of important implications. For one, it means that a Wikipedia page, although composed mostly of words, shares many of the characteristics of a screen image identified by Kress (2003): its reading is approached in blocks (such as separate blocks for navigation, article content, discussion, and editing), and there is no single point of entry to the page. Kress’ argument about new forms of hypertextual reading applies perfectly: “Reading is the imposing of the reader’s order on this entity, and order which, while of course responding to what is there, derives from criteria of the reader’s interest, disposition and desire: (2003, p 138). In other words, a browser, an author, an administrator or a vandal will approach a Wikipedia page in very different ways, scanning and making sense of a page according to their needs and desires.

This brings us to another important implication of the hypertextual mode of Wikipedia: that every page is the result of social dynamics that are never completed (even if a page is locked at some point, it can be unlocked later). “Wikipedia does not declare any article finished” (retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia on April 19, 2005). This means that we are dealing with a ‘live’ mode, a mode that refuses to be fixed, and that is ever sensitive to social influences. Critics of Wikipedia claim that its content is worthless because it is not subjected to any form of authoritative review. For those who believe in the fixity of knowledge, this might be a reassuring argument. But I believe that the new mode of text embodied by Wikipedia can teach new generations about the responsibilities of social collaboration, the act of critical reading (applied even to Reference materials), and the permanently unfinished state of human knowledge.

References

Kress, G. R. (2003). Literacy in the new media age. London: Routledge.

Wales, J. (2005). Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://mail.wikipedia.org/pipermail/wikipedia-l/2005-March/038102.html on April 19, 2005.

Facilitating the social annotation and commentary of web pages

UPDATE: For a response to some comments by James Farmer, Stephen Downes and Ian Kallen, see the bottom of this post.

Subtitle: A postscript to my work on Distributed Textual Discourse (DTD)

At last year’s 16th Annual Instructional Technology Institute Conference at Utah State University, I presented a paper on Distributed Textual Discourse. DTD is a model for facilitating asynchronous online conversations right at the source of the content, and can be used to enhance the collaborative features of existing tools such as blogs and wikis, or simply to provide the opportunity to annotate and comment on any section of a web page.

Although to this date I have not been able to produce a proof-of-concept, I have continued to conduct research in this area. Here, I would like to review some of the projects I have encountered that offer solutions to problems similar to the ones I tackled theoretically in my paper. [Some of the work I will discuss obviously precedes my paper on DTD, although I was unaware of this work at the time. Other projects seems to have appeared afterwards, although I doubt the developers had any knowledge of my work. Viva el collective unconscious!]

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Tag Literacy

Introduction:

Part of the allure of classifying things by assigning tags to them is that the user can give free reign to sloppiness. There is no authority —human or computational— passing judgment on the appropriateness or validity of tags, because tags have to make sense first and foremost to the individual who assigns and uses them. And yet, the whole point of distributed classification systems (DCSs) such as del.icio.us and flickr is that the aggregation of inherently private goods (tags and what they describe) has public value: When people use the same tag to point to different resources they are organizing knowledge in a manner, commonly referred to as a folksonomy, that makes sense to them and to others like them. In other words, the tag is the object that brings a resource and a social group together via the shared meaning of a word (although tags also serve to form connections between words and new meanings, as for example when you encounter a link to the Center for Alternative Technology when looking at the tag ‘cat’).

We can say, then, that DCSs function at the intersection of individual choices and the shared linguistic/semantic norms of a social group (the folks in folksonomy). In this paper, I explore two aspects of this intersection. In the first part, I examine some of the open affordances of DCSs in terms of the agency of the code (the program; the computer instructions that make things happen). In other words, I look at how DCSs frame social activity in the process of aggregating individual tagging choices into collective information; in short, how the code shapes social action. At the same time, I also explore the implications of relegating the organization of some social functions to the code.

In the second part, I explore some of the linguistic properties of tags, their role in an attention economy, and outline a set of guidelines for generating tags in ways that maximize the social usefulness of tags. Tag literacy in this sense refers to the ‘etiquette’ of generating tags in a way that increases their social value, balancing individual needs with the needs of the group. Because the code (rightly, I believe) does not enforce normative behaviors when it comes to the creation of tags, I argue that it is up to those users invested in the welfare of the community to develop a normative approach to tagging.

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Social literacies: Some observations about writing and wikis

In Literacy in the New Media Age, Gunther Kress (2003) argues that the image is displacing writing as the main resource for communication in Western societies. This does not mean, obviously, that writing is disappearing. But as Kress would put it, the world told is increasingly being replaced by the world shown—with all the social and cultural changes that this entails. An analysis of the considerations that go into how text is arranged and displayed on a web page, for example, suggests that Kress is correct in pointing out that writing is being treated more and more as a visual entity. No longer is the unbroken, uniform, left to right flow of text the norm. Instead, in the new media especially, text plays a secondary role to images, meandering around them, adjusting its visual properties (such as font, size and color) to fit the overall layout of the screen, and signaling different entry points into the non-linear flow of meaning. Think of a blog: although it is basically full of text, how you make sense of the blog has a lot to do with the visual arrangement of the text: how posts are organized, what information goes on the sidebars, where the link to the RSS feed is usually located, etc. Interacting with a blog has as much to do with the reading of the text as with the watching of the screen.

But is this ‘visual turn’ as totalizing as Kress suggests? Will all forms of writing in the new media age become increasingly organized according to the logic of the image? We must keep in mind that (because of bandwidth capacity) the internet was first and foremost a textual medium. This means that probably for a long time to come, conceptualizing innovative ways to do things online will involve the manipulation of textual symbols in some form or another. Consider the case of wikis. While their use and popularity remains relatively limited, they are a clear example of a new media technology grounded as much on the workings of text as on those of the image.

A wiki, for those unfamiliar with the tool, is a collection of web pages that can be edited by anyone using nothing more than a web browser. Technically, a wiki is a piece of software residing on a server that facilitates the creation, editing and hyperlinking of text files, which are displayed as online pages (it is also possible to embed images on the text). Two of the most salient features of a wiki are that the editing is open to anyone (hence the process is referred to as open editing), and that the creation, formatting and interlinking of pages requires very simple syntax. For example, to create a link to a new or an existing page, a user needs only to enclose the title of the page in brackets. While the tool itself is not very technologically sophisticated (hence part of its beauty), the collaborative and democratic affordances of wikis are giving us plenty to think about.

For one thing, wikis are challenging and redefining our notions of how text itself works. While hypertext changed our understanding of textual linearity and flow, wikis are changing our ideas about the ‘social’ life of text. Of course, in a way writing has always been social. Even when the writing is done by an isolated author, that author is nonetheless responding to social conventions and interests. No one writes in a vacuum. But wikis make writing social by allowing for the direct, continuous manipulation of a text by a group of people.

The idea of collaborative writing is not entirely new. Margaret Fleming’s work (1988), for example, recognizes that many professional occupations require that people cooperate in the writing of texts. However, such approaches have always assumed a group of people who come face-to-face to plan and discuss their actions. A wiki is different in that authors don’t have to be in the same physical space, don’t have to have a previous relationship with each other, and don’t need to plan their actions in any way. The wiki not only captures the content, but also the process; or rather, the wiki is the content and the process.

Wikis engender a new form of literacy: a social literacy. The word literacy is used loosely these days to define all sorts of competences (viz. visual literacy, musical literacy, computer literacy, and so on). Here, I am using Kress’ more exact definition: literacy as the “term which refers to (the knowledge of) the use of the resource of writing” (2003, p. 24). This definition makes it possible to separate literacy from other resources (such as speech), as well as other ‘metaphorical extensions’ of the concept (such as musical literacy, cultural literacy, etc.). The intention is to re-focus literacy exclusively on writing. Thus, social literacy (as I am using the term) is not a metaphorical extension of the concept and does not refer to the skills necessary to perform in society, but to the use of the resource of writing in social contexts. Social literacy amounts to the textual practices not (as has been true so far) of a single author, but of multiple and simultaneous authors. Wikis make social literacy apparent by allowing us to witness the evolution of text in time, and evolution that reflects the decisions not of a single individual, but of a community.

Brian Lamb (2004) summarizes some of the characteristics of wiki writing as follows:

Content is ego-less, time-less, and never finished. Anonymity is not required but is common. With open editing, a page can have multiple contributors, and notions of page “authorship” and “ownership” can be radically altered. Content “cloning” across wikis—sometimes referred to in non-wiki circles as “plagiarism”—is often acceptable. (This attitude toward authorship can make citations for articles such as this one a tricky exercise.) Unlike weblogs, wiki pages are rarely organized by chronology; instead they are organized by context, by links in and links out, and by whatever categories or concepts emerge in the authoring process. And for the most part, wikis are in a constant state of flux. Entries are often unpolished, and creators may deliberately leave gaps open, hoping that somebody else will come along to fill them in.

In wikis, the process becomes the product. What is important is not who changed a sentence in the text, but that the sentence has been changed and can be changed again, if someone doesn’t like it. As the following quote suggests, wikis significantly alter our ideas about the ownership and stability of text to an extent that not even earlier forms of electronic text achieve:

Concern with this openness – concern with the ability of others not only to read but to change what’s been written – is a measure of how closed we take writing to be. Even on the web, it seems, words are written in stone, and what’s more, we own the stones we write on, damnit! (WikiAsCulture, n.d., emphasis in original)

In a wiki, writing is so open that it ceases to be owned by any single individual. The surprising thing about wikis is that, although all the openness sounds like a recipe for disaster, committed communities seem to avoid chaos and actually manage to give shape to collectively shared meaning.

Which is not to say that wikis do not pose challenges to the articulation of meaning. Crystal (2001), while not writing about wikis specifically, enumerated some of the problems of social literacy. He argues that contrary to most traditional printed texts which have a single author, on the web:

[t]here are multi-authored pages where the style shifts unexpectedly from one part of a page to another. The more interactive a site becomes, the more likely it will contain language from different dialect backgrounds and operating at different stylistic levels—variations in formality are particularly common… People have more power to influence the language of the Web than in any other medium, because they operate on both sides of the communication divide, reception and production. They not only read a text, they can add to it. (Crystal, 2001, pp. 207, 208)

Which raises the question of how author/readers are able to write for and make sense of this new type of multi-styled text. Are authors/readers learning to ‘filter out’ the noise of multiple styles, and becoming more adept at developing a holistic understanding of the wiki text? In other words, are they becoming comfortable with textual bricolage, with a ‘genre’ of writing (cf. Kress, 2003, Chapter 6) characterized by the impermanence of genre? Or are authors/readers learning to write in a uniform, globalized form of wiki-speak? What are the social and cultural implications of each scenario?

Another area that merits attention is the educational affordances of the wiki. Wikis can facilitate a shift from an objectivist theory of learning to a constructivist or situated perspective. Instead of authors producing texts with ‘fixed’ meanings for the consumption of learners, groups of people collaborate in the production of the text, and meaning emerges out of these social interactions at the level of the text. This collective intelligence is something that can be encouraged both inside and outside the classroom. Learners can use wikis in the classroom for class projects, helping define the curriculum as they do so. But wikis can also be used outside the classroom for learners to pursue more personal interests and research agendas. It is important to keep in mind that, more than mere texts, wikis represent communities, online places where a group of people who share an interest come together to collaborate and learn. These communities can intersect the boundaries of school and non-school interests.

A final recommendation, based on personal observations, is that wikis in education should not be used to attempt to facilitate dialogue. There are plenty of other online tools better equipped to support an Initiation-Reply mode of conversation (such as discussion boards for collective dialogue, or blogs and email for more individualized forms of exchange). If appropriate, these tools can be used in conjunction with wikis. But the whole point of wikis is to de-prioritize the individual voice in favor of the collective voice, which dictates the structure and content of the text. This, of course, is a literacy which most individuals in our societies are unaccustomed to. Which is why scaffolding wikis with other technologies that support more traditional forms of communication might be an adequate strategy.


References

Crystal, D. (2001). Language and the internet. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fleming, M. B. (1988). Getting out of the writing vacuum. NCTE Committee on Classroom Practices in Teaching English, Focus on Collaborative Learning: Classroom Practices in Teaching English, 77-104. Urbana: NCTE.

Kress, G. R. (2003). Literacy in the new media age. London: Routledge.

Lamb, B. (2004). Wide open spaces: Wikis, ready or not. EDUCAUSE Review, 39, (5), 36–48. Retrieved on March 1, 2005 from  http://www.educause.edu/pub/er/erm04/erm0452.asp

WikiAsCulture. (n.d.) Retrieved on March 1, 2005 from http://199.17.178.148/%7Emorgan/cgi-bin/blogsAndWiki.pl?WikiAsCulture

A del.icio.us study

Bookmark, Classify and Share:
A mini-ethnography of social practices in a distributed classification community

[Note: This is a project I did for a class on social and communicative aspects of the internet, taught by Chuck Kinzer. Not a ‘real’ study, but you might find some of the literature review and listed resources helpful. You may also want to check out a more recent paper I wrote on tagging and del.icio.us: Tag Literacy]

Abstract

Working within the constraints of a very limited data sample, this
study attempts to identify some of the information management and
meaning construction practices of an online distributed classification
(a.k.a. free tagging or ethnoclassification) community. Specifically,
this study seeks to investigate the social and communicative practices
that emerge when users are encouraged to share web links with one
another by using a metadata keyword, or tag, to demark a social group,
apart from using other tags to classify links according to an emergent
taxonomy.

Introduction

We have definitely arrived at a point in the development of human knowledge where the amount of content published online everyday far exceeds the ability of anyone to categorize and index such wealth of information. Even for a hypothetical individual or organization of great skill and capacity, the task of processing all that content would pose an almost insurmountable problem, without even considering the difficulty of developing and maintaining a taxonomy to accommodate the speed at which new knowledge is produced.

But the situation is not hopeless. Solutions to this particular dilemma are emerging that are in accordance to the demands of the Information Age. One approach, made possible by advances in network technologies, is to distribute the task amongst the maximum number of individuals possible. Just as we figured out that scanning outer space for intelligent life signals is a task that can proceed more efficiently by being distributed across many computer processors, we have begun to realize that other tasks that require human involvement can also be distributed across individuals by using the largest human network in history: the internet.

This principle of distribution is at work in socio-technical systems that allow users to collaboratively organize a shared set of resources by assigning classifiers, or tags, to each item. The practice is coming to be known as free tagging, open tagging, ethnoclassification, folksonomy, or faceted hierarchy (henceforth referred to in this study as distributed classification), and is associated with popular online services such as furl (www.furl.net), del.icio.us (http://del.icio.us/), or flickr (www.flickr.com/).

One important feature of systems such as these is that they do not impose a rigid taxonomy. Instead, they allow users to assign whatever classifiers they choose. Although this might sound counter-productive to the ultimate goal of organizing content, in practice it seems to work rather well, although it does present some drawbacks. For example, most people will probably classify pictures of cats by using the tag ‘cats.’ But what happens when some individuals use ‘cat’ or ‘feline’ or ‘meowmeow’ or ‘my.favorite.cat’?

While the present study is obviously interested in such issues, my goal is to focus instead in some of the social dynamics that are emerging through the use of distributed classification systems. My thesis is that a better of understanding of how users perceive these systems, and how they interact with each other through them, can provide us with important insights about individual as well as social processes of knowledge and meaning construction online.

Purpose Statement

To identify, through a series of quantitative as well as ethnographic research methods, some of the social interactions and information management practices exhibited by users of the CCTE Distributed Research (http://ideant.typepad.com/ccte/) system, in order to better understand how distributed classification shapes individual and social processes of knowledge and meaning construction online.

Literature Review and Theory

As the variety of alternatives to describe this phenomenon suggest, distributed classification is still a nascent field, and formal research and theorizing is just beginning. Therefore, very little literature exists on the social and communicative affordances of distributed classification systems. Below, I will summarize some of the main themes in the field and attempt to portray the emerging zeitgeist by quoting extensively from the blogosphere.

To begin, Jon Udell frames the issue in terms of an individual’s motivation for assigning metadata to content:

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… 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. (Udell, 2004)

It seems that while most people might not be motivated to contribute to a pre-established system of classification that may not meet their needs, or to devise new and complex taxonomies of their own, they are quite happy to use distributed systems of classification that are quick and able to accommodate their personal (and ever changing) systems of classification.

This is exactly what distributed classification systems such as del.icio.us provide. As far as the actual operation of del.icio.us (the focus of this study), Matt Biddulph describes it as follows:

You submit your links to a website, adding some descriptive text and keywords, and del.icio.us aggregates your post with everyone else’s submissions–letting you slice and dice the information any way you like. Posts with the same keywords are clumped together, and if enough people link to a URL, a loose classification emerges. (Biddulph, 2004)

But distributed classification does not accrue benefits only to the individual. It is a very social endeavor in which the community as a whole can benefit. Jon Udell describes some of the individual and social possibilities of this method of classification:

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. (Udell 2004)

This is indeed one of the most important advantages of using a distributed classification system: the ability to emergently define a taxonomy, or, as it is alternatively known, a folksonomy. The advantage of this ethnoclassification or free tagging or faceted hierarchy process can be described in various ways:

Set this [an imposed taxonomy] against the idea of allowing a user to add tags to any given document in the corpus. Like Del.icio.us, there needn’t be a pre-defined hierarchy or lexicon of terms to use; one can simply lean on the power of ethnoclassification to build that lexicon dynamically. As such, it will dynamically evolve as usages change and shift, even as needs change and shift. (Williams, 2004)

The primary benefit of free tagging is that we know the classification makes sense to users… For a content creator who is uploading information into such a system, being able to freely list subjects, instead of choosing from a pre-approved “pick list,” makes tagging content much easier. This, in turn, makes it more likely that users will take time to classify their contributions. (Merholz, 2004)

Folksonomies work best when a number of users all describe the same piece of information. For instance, on del.icio.us, many people have bookmarked wikipedia (http://del.icio.us/url/bca8b85b54a7e6c01a1bcfaf15be1df5), each with a different set of words to describe it. Among the various tags used, del.icio.us shows that reference, wiki, and encyclopedia are the most popular. (Wikipedia entry for folksonomy, retrieved December 15, 2004 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folksonomy)

Of course, this approach is not without its potential problems:

With no one controlling the vocabulary, users develop multiple terms for identical concepts. For example, if you want to find all references to New York City on Del.icio.us, you’ll have to look through “nyc,” “newyork,” and “newyorkcity.” You may also encounter the inverse problem — users employing the same term for disparate concepts. (Merholz, 2004)

As a way to address this issue, many have suggested that synonym control mechanisms be implemented in distributed classification systems. But as Clay Shirky remarks, this solution might diminish some of the benefits that we can derive from folksonomies:

Synonym control is not as wonderful as is often supposed, because synonyms often aren’t. Even closely related terms like movies, films, flicks, and cinema cannot be trivially collapsed into a single word without loss of meaning, and of social context… There is a loss in folksonomies, of course, but also gain, so the question is one of relative value. Given the surprising feedback loop — community creates folksonomy, which helps the community spot its own concerns, which leads them to invest more in folksonomies — I expect the value of communal categorization to continue to grow. (Shirky, 2004)

Lastly, we should also keep in mind that, as Matt Biddulph points out, there are established structures defining just how open these systems are and what kind of knowledge is shared. We might see these as acceptable or even desirable costs, but we should still be aware of the dynamics:

The choice of tags [in the entire del.icio.us system] follows something resembling the Zipf or power law curve often seen in web-related traffic. Just six tags (python, delicious/del.icio.us, programming, hacks, tools, and web) account for 80% of all the tags chosen, and a long tail of 58 other tags make up the remaining 20%, with most occurring just once or twice… In the del.icio.us community, the rich get richer and the poor stay poor via http://del.icio.us/popular. Links noted by enough users within a short space of time get listed here, and many del.icio.us users use it to keep up with the zeitgeist. (Biddulph, 2004)

Having reviewed some of the literature, I will now summarize the concepts that inform this study.

Key Concepts

  • Socio-technical system. This study does not frame technological systems as divorced from the people who use them and the context in which they are used. A socio-technical system is conformed of hardware, software, physical surroundings, people, procedures, laws and regulations, and data and data structures (from http://www.computingcases.org/general_tools/sia/socio_tech_system.html, retrieved on November 22, 2004).
  • Metadata: Keywords (or ‘tags’) used to describe an object, usually structured according to a taxonomy, or a system of classification.
  • Distributed classification (also known as free tagging, open tagging, folksonomy or ethnoclassification): A way for individuals or groups to collectively define their own taxonomy. This is in contrast to taxonomies that are pre-defined and that are imposed in a top-down hierarchy.
  • RSS: Real Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary. An XML format for distributing information about a dynamic web site. Commonly employed by bloggers and news organizations to syndicate new content, allowing users to subscribe to ‘RSS feeds’ which are usually collected with an ‘RSS Aggregator.’ In distributed classification systems (such as del.icio.us), RSS feeds can be created for particular tags or users.


Research Questions

Due to the limited scope and timeframe of this study, none of the results should be considered as definitive answers to my research questions. In fact, my intention is merely to suggest directions for future, more comprehensive studies. These are the questions I have attempted to address in this study:

  • How is meaning created in the distributed classification system through the social sharing of bookmarks?
  • How is knowledge collectively structured by the use of tags?
  • What social conventions emerge through the use of the distributed classification system?


Methodology and Data Analysis

Setting

The study took place mostly online. Two web locations were the main sites of data gathering:

  • del.icio.us (http://del.icio.us): As discussed above, del.icio.us is an online service that lets users collect and categorize web links (URLs). According to its author, “del.icio.us is a social bookmarks manager. It allows you to easily add sites you like to your personal collection of links, to categorize those sites with keywords, and to share your collection not only between your own browsers and machines, but also with others” (http://del.icio.us/doc/about, retrieved on December 4, 2004).
  • CCTE Distributed Research (http://ideant.typepad.com/ccte/): CCTE DR is a portal created by me that provides instructions for using del.icio.us to collect bookmarks and, by including the special tag ‘ccte,’ share those bookmark with others. Users can visit the portal just listed or subscribe to an RSS feed of the ‘ccte’ del.icio.us feed. In my own personal blog, I described the motivation for creating CCTE DR as follows: “[A]t the graduate program where I am studying (Communication, Computing and Technology in Education, or CCTE), we usually share links by email or through classroom discussion boards. This means things don’t get archived collectively, and only some people benefit from such knowledge. Some of us have blogs, but we don’t really use them to share bookmarks. What if the CCTE community was encouraged to use a ‘ccte’ tag when bookmarking stuff on del.icio.us? And what if I created a little portal to display the RSS feed of that tag (as well as provide some instructions)?” The CCTE DR portal was launched on September 25, 2004. As of December 4, 2004, the site had received 424 hits, or an average of about 6 visits per day (interestingly, someone is Spain also started using del.icio.us tags in the same way at around the same time; cf. http://www.eibar.org/blogak/luistxo/en/166, retrieved on December 4, 2004).

Additionally, I gathered informal interview (“ethnographic”) data through email and, in some cases, face to face conversations.

Actors

There were six individuals who voluntarily participated in this study by choosing to use the system. All are graduate students at Teachers College, Columbia University, and all but one of them are enrolled in the Communication, Computing and Technology in Education program. It should also be acknowledged that one of the subjects or users is me, the author of this study.

Additionally, an analysis of the server logs shows that there were a number of visitors to the CCTE DR portal (people who simply browsed the links, but never posted a bookmark), although the exact number and affiliation is hard to determine.

Events and Processes

After creating and troubleshooting the system, I invited a number of people to use it. In order to post, all users had to create a del.icio.us account first (there is no cost involved in doing this, and all that is required is to create a username, a password, and enter an email address). I included in the CCTE DR portal detailed instructions for how to post a bookmark once the user acquired a del.icio.us account. The following describes the process in brief.

Upon encountering a web location that the user wished to bookmark, classify and share, the subject would click on a bookmarklet located on their browser bar (this bookmarklet was installed as part of the del.icio.us account creation process). This would cause a del.icio.us pop-up form to appear. The form would have the following fields: url, description, extended, and tags. There would also be a Save button. All fields would be editable, and some were prefilled. The url field would be automatically filled with the corresponding web address of the page that was being viewed. The description field would be automatically filled with the title of the page. The extended field would be empty; here the user could enter additional information about the web page in question. The tag field would also be empty. Here, users could enter whatever metadata keywords they wished to associate with the particular page in questions. It was emphatically stressed in the CCTE DR instructions that if users wanted to share the link with the rest of the CCTE DR community, they should include as one of their tags the keyword ‘ccte.’ This allowed me to use the corresponding RSS feed generated by del.icio.us for this tag to automatically publish all items that contained ‘ccte’ to the CCTE DR portal. To do this, I used a service called RSS Digest (http://www.bigbold.com/rssdigest/) that automatically queries the specified RSS feed for new items every 30 minutes and generates a formatted view of the information that can be published on a web page.

After the required 30 minutes or so, the link bookmarked by the user would appear on the CCTE DR page. Other users would see the link either the next time they visited the CCTE DR web page, or if they used an RSS Aggregator, the next time they checked their subscriptions (I myself subscribed to the ‘ccte’ RSS feed and would check it daily with my Shrook RSS aggregator, which meant that I didn’t have to visit the CCTE DR page except to make sure things were working fine).

Specific communication and knowledge-building practices amongst users are discussed in the Findings section of this study.

Data Collection Strategies

Because this study was not intended to be a comprehensive application of a research methodology, I tried to combine aspects of both quantitative and qualitative methods to provide as interesting a picture as possible of the social practices that emerged through the use of the CCTE DR socio-technical system. It should be acknowledged from the start that the amount of data used in this study is not meant to be considered a sufficient sample.

Quantitative strategies:

  • Analysis of logs: I had access to usage reports made available by the server that hosted the CCTE DR page, the service that monitored RSS subscriptions, and whatever information del.icio.us provides (such as who posted each item, etc.).
  • Analysis of tag use: Using mostly information from del.icio.us, I put together the tables in the Appendix that summarize usage, including most popular themes by tag, tag ranking, and individual user tag use. It is worthwhile to note that there are tools, such as tag.alicio.us (http://frenchfragfactory.net/ozh/archives/2004/10/05/tagalicious-a-way-to-integrate-delicious/) and extisp.icio.us (http://kevan.org/extispicious), that aid in querying and visualizing the use of tags in del.icio.us. I only had opportunity to play with the latter, however.

Qualitative strategies:

  • Informal interviews with users: Since the launch of the system, I maintained informal and irregular communication with the users of the system. This included email exchanges as well as face to face conversations. I did not follow a particular template for these interviews. Sometimes I would engage in extemporaneous exchanges about the CCTE DR system with users. Other times, I would prepare brief questionnaires that I would send by email, and to which users replied voluntarily. For purposes of this study, interview quotes do not include any statements made by me as a user (I felt that my bias as researcher would be reflected in these statements).

Data Analysis Procedures

These are some of the measures I looked at, both quantitative and qualitative:

Quantitative:

  • Total number of users in the system (up to a certain date)
  • Total number of items submitted by user (up to a certain date)
  • Most popular tags in the system (referred to as ‘themes’)
  • Tag use by individual user (i.e., what keywords they used, and how frequently)
  • Items archived by the user that did NOT include the ‘ccte’ tag (i.e., personal bookmarks)
  • Number of visits to the CCTE DR page
  • Number of RSS subscriptions

Qualitative:

  • Understanding of the function and potential benefits of the system
  • Difficulty in using the system
  • Additional desired features not currently found in the system, in particular features that would enhance social interaction

Findings

In this section, I will try to summarize some of trends that emerged in the analysis of the quantitative and qualitative data. These findings are by no means conclusive, specially considering the small study sample. Thus, they should be taken more as possible directions for further exploration.

How is knowledge collectively structured by the use of tags?

In total, there were 6 users of the CCTE DR system who contributed 156 items between September 25th and December 12th of 2004 (this means that 156 items included the tag ‘ccte’). The most active user contributed 117 items using 156 different tags, while the least active user contributed 2 items using only the ‘ccte’ tag (a summary of the data is provided in the Appendix). In the interest of disclosure, I should acknowledge that I was the most active user of the system.

What kinds of resources did users share? Given the focus of the Computers, Communication and
Technology in Education program, it is not surprising that users (mostly students in this program) contributed items mostly having to do with the use of technology in social and educational settings. By analyzing tag use and grouping similar tags (e.g., blog and blogs), I found that the most common themes were: blogs, games, social, collaboration, academia, and virtuality. As expected, users did employ many of the same tags. For example, the single most used tag by more than one user (excluding ‘ccte,’ which was used by all users) was ‘collaboration,’ used 11 times by two users. ‘Blog’ and ‘blogs’ were used 11 times by three users. ‘Games’ and ‘gaming’ were used 12 times by 2 users.

The sharing of resources related to these topics mirrors the interests of the larger internet community. Although it was not possible to conduct searches to see how many times a particular tag was used by all del.icio.us users (del.icio.us does not provide this information as part of its search functions), a search of the use of these terms in the blogosphere (conducted using www.technorati.com) reveals that terms such as ‘blogs’ and ‘gaming’ are indeed used more than terms such as ‘identity’ or ‘globalization’ (for a comparison of this ranking, see the Appendix).

Through the interviews, I was able to get a glimpse of how the community of users decided what types of resources should be shared. This took the form of discussions about ‘who the audience for this is’ and how this information influenced the kinds of bookmarks users believed it was pertinent to share, and the kinds of bookmarks they would collect for their own research purposes without sharing them with the rest of the community. The following passage by a user summarizes this kind of decision making:

I thought of the CCTE DR blog as being for a certain audience… I’d only choose to put links that were of a general enough interest to appeal to a variety of people. At the same time, I saw that audience as having certain interests (socio-cultural approaches to understanding tech, social software, games, new literacies…) that pretty much reflect the interests of the people who I know post to the blog. So, I decided to start my own set of research bookmarks that were more specific to my own interests, including stuff that others might not have a broad appeal (technology and liberal arts colleges, for example).

Another user remarked: “I’ve only bookmarked a few things and all of them have the ccte tag. However, I would only use this tag when I feel I want to share with the ccte audience.” The use of del.icio.us to classify personal bookmarks without sharing them with the rest of the CCTE community is measured by the number of items submitted without the ‘ccte’ tag. For example, one user saved 9 items out of her total of 22 without the ‘ccte’ tag. Other subjects used the ‘ccte’ tag almost for everything; I employed the ‘ccte’ tag for 117 out of 118 items.

What social conventions emerge through the use of the distributed classification system?

Some of the most interesting social conventions emerged through the use of the extended field in the del.icio.us form (the pop-up form used to submit an item). Since all other fields (url, description, and tags) served specific purposes, the extended field was adopted for more informal means of communication within the community. For example, comments entered in the extended field such as “Did anyone attend this event?” are most likely addressed to the other members of the CCTE DR community, and not to the del.icio.us community at large. I make this inference based on the fact that since there is no way for other del.icio.us members to reply, the author of this comment expected that if one of the CCTE DR members had indeed attended the event in question, he or she would make the author aware of this through another means of communication available only to them (email or face to face conversation). Also, one user sometimes included a note in the extended field to signify to whom the bookmark in question might be particularly relevant. For example: “[for David].” This information obviously was not intended for (and could not be made sense of by) other del.icio.us users.

Equally important are the conventions that users felt could not emerge due to the lack of features in the system. For example, one user said: “[C]omments for posts! I’d like it if we can discuss the things people post,” referring to the lack of a feature that would allow users to annotate the bookmarks already submitted by others. Another user remarked: “No ‘people knowledge’: No information on the participants other than the collection of bookmarks they post” and “[N]o way to know if others find posts useful. I feel if I got feedback on my participation I would post more often and with more relevance,” which suggests this user felt a user profile and a rating system would increase the usefulness of the system.

It is also clear from usage patterns and interview data that some users did not find the system useful or easy to operate. This might have been related to the level of interest, the availability of personal time, or the clarity of the instructions on how to use the system and what its potential benefits are. For example, one user commented: “I only tried twice briefly and it looks like I messed it up both times. I didn’t explore the other features either (mostly due to my time constraints)” and “It’s also not easy to see the big picture. I cannot easily find the main page, where the other links and resources are located…” This suggests, among other things, that the connection between CCTE DR and deli.cio.us was not explained clearly in the instructions, at least for this particular user. However, it is not surprising to note that the users who experienced more difficulties in using the system, like the one just quoted, are also the ones who contributed less items (i.e., who spent less time experimenting with the system).

Finally, it is interesting to note that, as far as social conventions go, people seem to find more value in reviewing links than in submitting them. Although the degree of ‘lurking’ is difficult to quantify, I quote the following comment by a user: “I don’t post that often. I do find things daily that I feel are worth posting but I don’t. I do, however, check the CCTE DR page daily for new stuff.”

How is meaning created in the distributed classification system through the social sharing of bookmarks?

Although more data would be needed to make substantive claims in this area, some observations can be made about the processes of meaning making through the use of del.icio.us and the CCTE DR portal. One observable trend is the difficulty to make the conceptual switch from using fixed to using flexible taxonomies. All of the users who voluntarily supplied interview data asked about the inclusion of categories at one point or another: “[I]s there a way to organize the links into categories, if not on the main page, then perhaps a list of categories in the side bar?”, “[T]he added resources and links are not necessarily categorized, which make it difficult to locate things quickly” and “Is it going to be possible to have posts grouped by category?” These comments suggest that it’s hard to let go of established modes of classification. Even though del.icio.us gives users the power to build their own taxonomies, most still felt that some pre-arranged order would make the system more useful. One user, while expressing some dissatisfaction with a flexible taxonomy system, also suggested ways in which this problem could be addressed: “The free tagging feature is too free. I feel that it might be better to pick from a list and to add new tags only when the list doesn’t contain the tag you need” (incidentally, some del.icio.us plug-ins such as nutr.icio.us, http://supergreg.hopto.org/nutritious/, are starting to head in that direction).

On the other hand, it seems that those users who spent more time with the system, and explored more in depth the features of del.icio.us, began to perceive the potential of the system. The following remark unveils a user’s thought process as she discovers an additional dimension of using del.icio.us tags that she had not thought of before:

I thought of it [del.icio.us, as opposed to CCTE DR] more as a way of having a set of bookmarks accessible on the web, instead of in a menu in my browser, so that I could refer to them even when I didn’t have my computer with me. Also, I thought of using the tags as a way to file the bookmarks by subject, which is a problem with the CCTE links. Of course, as I’m thinking about this, I realize that I could just as well give a link two tags, which would send it to CCTE and file it under my own bookmarks using my own filing system.

Here’s another comment by a user who suddenly realizes the multiplicities of meaning that can be realized through using tags in a flexible taxonomy:

I don’t think anyone in the ccte program does this sort of research [referring to a specific bookmark’s topic] but I did add the tag because it was directly related to my own research. I’m thinking now that perhaps the tag serves a dual purpose. One, to tag resources that I want to share with others. Two, to tag resources that share my interests with others such that I’m sharing “people knowledge” about myself.

Additionally, users of CCTE DR also began to realize how the system can be used to share and collectively construct meaning within the CCTE community (“I’m trying to get all the video games folks to post their links there instead of to our mailing list”) and with the external online community at large (“What’s also cool about this is that people who are interested in what’s going on at CCTE, can visit this site to get a sense of what people are interested in”).

Conclusions

As the findings of this preliminary and limited study show, it is hard for people to make the initial conceptual shift from traditional forms of classification (using fixed taxonomies) to distributed classification schemes (using flexible taxonomies). The freedom to define individual and social structures of classification emergently can be perceived as chaotic, lacking rigor and utility. However, the more comfortable users become with a system’s features, the more aware they become of the benefits of distributed classification, and the more aware they also become of working within its limitations.
It can be argued that distributed classification systems such as del.icio.us do not exhibit some of the features commonly thought of as necessary to support online communities (features such as the ability to access ‘profile’ knowledge about individual users, the ability to communicate directly with other users, and the ability to rate the quality of submissions). It seems that del.icio.us did not set out to become that kind of community tool, so those features might never become part of its toolset. However, one question to explore further is to what degree such features would enhance the sense of community, or if there are other ways in which del.icio.us accomplishing that.

One thing that did not seem to be very clear in the minds of the people participating in this study is how CCTE DR users are contributing not only to that particular community, but to the larger del.icio.us community and their efforts. Perhaps the creation of the CCTE DR portal itself served as a distraction, confusing users about its purpose and the role that del.icio.us plays in fulfilling that purpose. At the same time, I would argue that at least the CCTE DR portal allowed users to realize the social benefits of the distributed classification system more quickly, and in ways more relevant to their own interests. However, more thinking needs to be done on how to get inexperienced users to understand the benefits of distributed classification, and if indeed creating subcommunities within these systems is the best way to do that.

As the designer of the CCTE DR portal, it became clear to me that more needs to be done to get people to understand that CCTE DR is just a place where reviewing links submitted by others can be done quickly; thus, questions of whether it is appropriate to submit a particular link should not be central. Since it is very easy to quickly scan the bookmarks submitted, CCTE DR is intended to be a real-time snapshot of what the community is researching, and nothing more. Any further exploration, archiving and classification should be handled through the del.icio.us interface by each user.

Accordingly, more needs to be done also to investigate if people would find accessing the RSS feed of CCTE DR more useful than visiting the web page every day. For this to happen, more needs to be done to explain to users that the essence of CCTE DR is really the del.icio.us tag, and that RSS or the CCTE DR web page are simply ways to view items associated with that tag (it would be nice to be able to see as part of an item which other tags were used in classifying it).

Lastly, it will be interesting to monitor how community dynamics and meaning/knowledge construction processes change if the number of CCTE DR users increases sharply. My hope is to continue to monitor usage and be able to expand this study.

References

Biddulph, M. (2004, November 10). Introducing del.icio.us. Retrieved on December 15, 2004 from http://www.xml.com/lpt/a/2004/11/10/delicious.html

Merholz, P. (2004, October 19). Metadata for the masses. Retrieved on December 15, 2004 from http://www.adaptivepath.com/publications/essays/archives/000361.php

Shirky, C. (2004, August 25). Folksonomy. Retrieved on December 15, 2004 from http://www.corante.com/many/archives/2004/08/25/folksonomy.php

Udell, J. (2004, August 20). Collaborative knowledge gardening. Retrieved on December 15, 2004 from http://www.infoworld.com/article/04/08/20/34OPstrategic_1.html

Williams, A. (2004, November 19). Terms of the night: Folksonomy and ethnoclassification. Retrieved on December 15, 2004 from http://www.livejournal.com/users/zamiel/831808.html


Appendix: Summary of Data

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