Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Categories, Tags and Blogs

I just got finished reading Clay Shirky’s new piece on tagging titled, “Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags”. It’s a good piece, not groundbreaking I didn’t think, but worth the read if you have some time to get through the 15-plus pages. One quote that really jumped out at me from the article is about the reliance on physical constraints behind categorization methods. Shirky writes, “The essence of a book isn’t the ideas it contains. The essence of a book is “book.” Thinking that library catalogs exist to organize concepts confuses the container for the thing contained.”

Books contain ideas. Libraries contain books. Libraries organize books by ideas because it made the most sense to them. You can’t expect people to know titles, but you can expect them to have a general idea of the subject of the book they’re looking for. The problem is that most books contain more than one idea.

Shirky continues:

It isn’t the ideas in a book that have to be in one place — a book can be about several things at once. It is the book itself, the physical fact of the bound object, that has to be one place, and if it’s one place, it can’t also be in another place. And this in turn means that a book has to be declared to be aboutß some main thing. A book which is equally about two things breaks the ‘be in one place’ requirement, so each book needs to be declared to about one thing more than others, regardless of its actual contents.

This is simply not true online. We’re not locked down by space constraints. That’s what the long tail’s all about, folks. So why do we continue to organize things in that way?

Well . . . because that’s how we know how. That’s what we’re comfortable with. It’s easy to throw a category option into Movable Type to provide people with a second way to allow users to browse their content. Problem is, it doesn’t really make all that much sense in this context. What I mean is, the same lack of physical constraints that allow us to use other categorization methods also makes traditional categorization methods make very little sense.

The web has no boundaries. It’s not limited to square footage or shelf space. Therefore, if you were to use a traditional categorization scheme it would be essentially useless. If you were looking for US History online and you just got a long list of web sites organized alphabetically that were “about” US History you’d be lost in a sea of clicks. So instead we use search engines to find specific words within those pages that relate to our interest.

Now it’s finally time to return to blogs. Why then do we use categories as a way to organize blogs? We’ve moved away from it in other places (even moving toward user-tagging in the most forward thinking web apps), however, it seems that blogging software is stuck in the past.

Why can’t we come up with a more imaginative solution to our blog organization needs than simply slapping on a category label and being done with it? Most things I write about can’t be categorized by one word or term. In fact, I don’t think you could categorize this site with one word or term. But MT doesn’t offer a user-friendly way to add multiple category labels (yes I know it’s possible . . . I said user-friendly). It also doesn’t offer a way to allow users to categorize content themselves.

At first as I was reading this I thought that maybe that was a good idea, but then on second thought, there’s no value to a user tagging a post on my website unless they plan on revisiting it and want an easy way to find it. So I am stuck.

This really boils down to how to organize the archives on my redesign (or whether to include an archive at all). Are they useful or is it us being stuck in an old paradigm? I’m offering easy search access on every page, so do you need to browse by date and category too?

I think the final decision I’ve had is this: The archive page will consist of two columns. The left will allow you to browse by date. The right, will offer you three options, three “r”‘s in fact (not those three). They will be “random entry,” “recent entries” and “recommended reading.” So you will either be able to browse by date, let your luck decide and read a random entry, check out what five entries I’ve written most recently (though I’m not sure this is useful) or allow me to guide you through some of the entries I suggest you read.

Does this make sense? Does it need anything else? I’m sorry to keep talking about this stupid redesign, but I’m having a blast thinking through every step of the user experience and trying to design a blog without adhering to the standards that have been set up by our forebloggers.

May 17, 2005