Tuesday, 6 November 2007

The Miscellany, Nominalism and The Essence of the Web

[NOTE: This version originally appeared on Armchair Media's blog. The more verbose version that was here has been removed... it was a drag.]

Given the tagged, user generated nature of the web today, is Information Architecture a dead practice that just won’t lay down? Are rigid ontologies a crime against the intrinsic nature of content on the web? Do outdated, hierarchical ways of ordering content on the web commit us to stifling and misleadingly authoritative structures that curtail innovation and invention?

David Weinberger seems to think so. He doesn’t like hierarchies, taxonomies or narrow instrumental classifications. His latest book, Everything is Miscellaneous, is devoted to drawing out just how inadequate these structures are when applied to the distributed, messy heap of content on the web. This isn’t a particularly new observation. Clay Shirky has been speaking to this point for years now. The basic idea is that the classificatory structures that we use to deal with the very real constraints of the physical world lend an artificial “essentialist” necessity to our task-based classificatory practices online. Ordering and making sense of the welter of stuff that populates our closets and sciences is necessary given the limitations of the physical world. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily “true” in some big, extra-systemic sense, however. The need for strict, pre-determined structure is mitigated online because computers are really good at creating ad hoc order out of an undifferentiated mess. Online, not everything needs one and only one place. Acting and designing as if it did at best limits the democratic/utopianist promise of the web and at worst imposes or perpetuates illegitimate power structures. My interest is in what this does to the practice of web design.

First of all, I agree with most of what Weinberger and Shirky say about the changed face of order on the web. The majority of content falls into a miscellany. It’s just a mess of digital artifacts awaiting order. Anyone can throw stuff out there and it doesn’t really matter where it resides. If it has metadata on it or we can read its content, we can find it again and probably even put it to some use for which it was never intended. It's the potential for order that’s important. Designers have been working out the implications of these ideas for years now. Apparently, Weinberger’s book is intended for the decision makers near the top that may not have worked out the implications of ideas like tagging.

A key target of Weinberger and Shirky’s ire are ontologies or data structures intended to explicate the concepts in some domain of knowledge. Ontologies, in the information sciences sense, are the cornerstone of the Semantic Web. Shirky uses the term more broadly, thinking of it in philosophical terms as the sorts of things countenanced by some system, the sorts of things that some domain recognizes as constituents. The claim is that ontologies lead to a species of essentialism, or the world view that everything has some set of properties that uniquely identifies it in all possible situations. Both Shirky and Weinberger spend a lot of their time pointing out the fact that most ontologies are arbitrary and conventional, but that they can give the impression of necessity or self-evidence. For them, different ontologies are just competing webs of more or less useful concepts. In holding this view we can refer to them as nominalists.

My problem with most influential nominalists on this and other points is that, if not read or followed carefully, they can give the impression that there’s no place for local, designed order online at all. In other words, sometimes their fervent tone gives the impression that there’s absolutely no room or reason for islands of structure built from the welter of free form content. In their desire to rout “ontologizing” hierarchies simply on principle, they obscure the fact that a task-based local structure doesn’t automatically engender a totalizing, absolutism. The local structures on most sites are about sense-making and communication, not world-making and dictation. For instance, Flickr, Weinberger’s favorite example isn’t really the free-wheeling heap of free-range content he casts it as. Content enters Flickr neatly, if minimally, categorized (“category” isn’t coextensive with “hierarchy”) by user, camera type, etc. One could almost say that the user provides a loose ontology for Flickr. The user, a sort of default set, is the center of gravity that holds Flickr together; it’s the initial structuring principle that gives the content its potential for further order and defines possible transformations. It’s a wonderfully loose binding, but without this initial act of minimal categorization, the potential for further arbitrary re-ordering is lost. Though Weinberger and Shirky clearly know this, they should probably state it more explicitly as their management level audience may not be in the trenches enough to cut through the polemic and hyperbole.

There’s no such thing as order ex nihilo. Computers are really good at aggregating if they’ve access to some sort of potential ordering mechanism (tags, official metadata, etc.). If it’s text, this could be pure content. If not, we need to attach something, thus Flickr’s initial, user determined set. If we’ve no handle by which to grab the content, it might as well not be there (particularly with images and video). This is not to say that there’s no emergent order, which is a separate issue entirely.

As we’ve been stating for years, Information Architecture in the old fashioned tree-structure sense does seem pretty irrelevant. Definitely so for IA in the grand, Peter Morville sense, in which all sites are trees, everything has one and only one spot and there’s very little cross-linking of paths. Still any structure that gives sense a la Flickr’s implicit categorization is a form of architecture. It’s an ordering principle that somehow sensibly aggregates content on a local scale. So we’ve no longer Information Architecture in which all structures are made from custom built materials. Rather it’s more of an information shanty town in which personal structures are built from the miscellaneous heap of common materials. But the important point is that it’s still architecture, and still reproduces common elements like doors, windows, etc (to stretch the metaphor a little thin). We need pools of order with understandable principles of manipulation that briefly and locally coordinate elements from the miscellany. This point is often obscured in Weinberger’s book and we, as designers, will have to pay the price once it starts to circulate within marketing departments.

And though Weinberger (at least) seems to frown upon instrumental concerns on the web, we tend to have to design sites that people use to do things. At an abstract level, the nature of the miscellaneous mess of content means that it becomes more useful the more content there is and the more it’s tagged. For example, the more people upload and interact with content on Flickr, the better your chance of finding photos tagged “fruitcake” that are actually pictures of fruitcakes. Tagging after all is often more about the tagger than the tagged. Once enough people are doing it, however, the tags start to become useful content locators; at high volumes, idiosyncrasies and bad tags tend to filter out. Unfortunately, this suggests that loose structures, based entirely on tags tend to have an instrumental usefulness that varies with content volume and interaction. The moral: if you’re working on a project with
a smallish expected volume that needs to be useful out of the gate, you may still need to impose a strict categorization scheme in order to meet you goal. This, to Weinberger, is a sin, or at least a backwards looking crime against the essence of the web. At least that’s the impression one gets reading the book. (Shirky takes a more nuanced, “domain of discourse” based approached)

On the ground, designers realize that these quicksilver, local categorizations are the fundamental means by which we define our sites and some of our only means of communication online. They’re a part of the language of the web through which we communicate our clients’ messages. Without these structures, there would be no sites per se, just a grey fog of rootless content awaiting individual requests for order. This can’t be what Weinberger has in mind. Yes, Google is hugely popular. But it’s also a high-level general ordering mechanism and a liminal space intended to get people through it, not to it. The success of Google at what it does does not mean that we should all follow that example. Unless all we want to build from here on out are search engines.

So, we all agree that, in general, top down hierarchies are less and less relevant to a distributed, open access dumping ground like the web. And, of course, nobody really thinks that there’s only one relevant ontology. Ontologies are domain specific and the attributes assumed within them are never intended to be intrinsic to the content. Still, the need for order comes from two directions: the client and the user. Sites are doors into the mass of content, zones of order that communicate in part through the principles they impose on the miscellany. Users don’t yet want to get down to the level of the miscellany. Google, is the closest we like to get: a presentation of an ostensibly ordered set bound together by some minimal user-defined “intension.” The lower level domain-specific sites we generally concern ourselves with usually require a tighter sense of order than something high-level like Google. In general, as domain specificity increases so too the appropriate ordering principles (conventional content breaks, vocabulary, etc.). Users want a certain decrease in uncertainty as they become more specific in their searching behavior, but I agree that they never want its elimination. This is what the new ordering principles are all about. Allowing local order without stripping away the global properties of the miscellany.

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