ASIST08: Tagging as a Communication Device

The second session I attended yesterday dealt with tagging, another subject I’ve been drawn to during my year in library school.

Heather Pfeiffer of New Mexico State University gave an overview of ontology building. She used the framework of language—syntax, semantics, and pragmatics—to talk about how we construct ontological frameworks, and she placed tagging within these varying frameworks to show how tags are constructed within a specific context.

Emma Tonkin of the University of Bath took Pfeiffer’s ideas and went a step further. I will admit that I was feeling a little out of my element, but here are some thoughts I jotted down during her presentation: She talked about the ways that building an ontology relies on the ideas of what is important to a very specific community, and about the way that each community creates its own ontology. I wondered what happens when one community has control over the ontologies, and the languages, of other groups of people. How and when do we define the world for other people?

  • How do libraries and universities define the world of knowledge for students?
  • Should we invite them in to re-define that world? Would that happen through tagging?
  • Can tagging provide the flexibility that library classification systems lack in a rapidly changing academic landscape?

I think what I mostly pondered as Emma talked was the question of sharing, and of who we’re letting in to build this world of knowledge in academic communities. How can we find a balance between a too static ontological system and a too flexible one?

David Millen of IBM’s TJ Watson Research group presented on patterns of collaborative tagging in the enterprise environment. He talked about varied goals of social sites, and I found his framework useful: Most people want to find, re-find, or explore, and their goals have a big impact on how they use them, and in turn how useful social bookmarking sites are to other people with different goals.

He mentioned that he found more similarities between users within IBM than differences, and I wondered whether that could be extrapolated to the academic community. Are there more similarities between users in the university than differences?

He mentioned toward the end using games to encourage people to start tagging, and I’m interested in exploring this a little further, especially in the context of adding tags to the library catalog or library resources.

Mark Lindner of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign talked about language and communication within LIS. He used Roy Harris’s theory of integrationism to talk about how we communicate through tags. I was particularly interested in looking at the differences between tagging for your own individual use, which can be seen as tagging as personal communication, and tagging for a community, where there are more constraints.

Finally, Margaret Kipp of Long Island University spoke about communication practices in groups. Some points of interest:

  • We usually engage in the activity of deciding on semantic meaning without realizing we are doing it, or thinking about it, which is amazing because it’s a very complicated practice.
  • We’re always placing something into a personal context, even “official” classification systems, because that is how we think.
  • Tagging something, or deciding on what it means, can be important for the process of understanding something and sense-making itself.

I thought about the way LibraryThing can show how my books have been tagged by other people, and it’s very interesting to have this tool to essentially compare ontologies or personal classification systems. You can start to understand what categories are important to you, and what is important to people in your community, by looking at these comparisons.

Another thing I thought my be worth exploring is related to the way people tag things with form-related words (book, article, etc.) and subject-related words. I thought it might be interesting to create a system where people have different categories of tags. For example, I could tag a particular website with a subject name, a form name, and a task-related name (to use, to share, etc.). How could we enhance information-seeking by allowing for these combinations of concepts that relate to a document to work together? Perhaps that’s just a silly idea, but in my dorkitude, I saw immediate usefulness. :-)

Overall, the presentation made me want to do a bit more reading into understanding how students think, how knowledge is created, and how our current technologies can change the ways knowledge is created. I think there are definitely some good areas for exploration, so expect to see more on this from me in the future.

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