Shirky’s analysis of the archaic use of categorisation systems is spot on.
The way humans have classified knowledge has, traditionally, been rigid. The methodology was to create categories under which all knowledge (such as books) could be placed. This was a solution to a physical problem regarding the actual storage of books and represented bias towards formal thinking and strict rules.
However, categorising in this manner is no longer relevant. The internet has revealed a more simple, more direct way of self-organisation (albeit quite still disorganised). Users, instead of adhering to strict categories can “tag” links and resources with numerous identifying words. Tags allow various connections to be drawn between resources more simply and more organically.
So instead of filing a link under “Entertainment/Movies” a link can be tagged as movie, film, actor, genre, and an infinite number of other tags. These tags allow the link to be cross-compared with other links with similar tags. It’s a really efficient way of organising without forcing everything into predefined boxes.
Core to this thinking are two ideas:
1. The search function. Searching tags is an alternative to finding information. Rather than using a categorised list and browsing through it, users can search for terms, keywords and tags. The results will be more related to the user’s needs without the need for a rigid hierarchy or structure.
2. Signal Loss. The bigger the system gets, the worse the system becomes. Inevitably more and more materials will refuse to fit into categories. This makes a strict category system hard to manage and the problem becomes exponential the bigger the knowledge base becomes. However with tagging, the larger the knowledge base, the less signal loss. Relevant materials become easier to find because the tags allow for more precision.
Shirky presents a thoughtful and compelling argument for reconsidering the way we categorise. Sites like del.icio.us proved that user tagged content is an efficient, self-managing system. Regardless of the problems resulting from how users interpret and tag links, if enough users independently tag a link, then that link will be easy to search for. Differentiation becomes possible on a macro scale with a single link able to have twenty or thirty tags.
Thus, the rise of word clouds – popular tag clouds and tag searching will become more relevant and common.