Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
May 5th, 2005
Planet Xavier


Relevance and priority

Jeffrey Zeldman argues that so-called “tag clouds” aren’t the panacea of navigation, and that they don’t belong everywhere:

As tag clouds come to replace expert taxonomies in common practice, carefully constructed hierarchies vanish. In their place is a flattened world where every idea, at any level, is a topic as worthy as any other. Eight Mile is a topic at the same level as Detroit, which is a topic at the same level as Cities, which is a topic at the same level as United States, and so on.

Instead of a hierarchy based on user-centered classification systems, the tag cloud “hierarchy” is based on raw usage. If several citizens of Detroit view a collection of photos tagged Eight Mile, upload their own photos of that street, and tag their photos Eight Mile, then Eight Mile becomes an important – and visible – category. If no one visits what would ordinarily be a “master” topic page such as Cities or United States, then those master categories shrink in size until they are invisible.

(Read the full article…)

For the majority of my readers who aren’t familiar with folksonomy, the concept that Zeldman refers to as “tag clouds,” it’s a way to categorize enormous sets of information based on keywords (tags) that you assign to every item. If you’ve ever tagged an image on Flickr or assigned a category to a Wikipedia article, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

In Flickr, there’s a list of the most frequently assigned tags. The more popular the tag is, the larger it’s displayed in the list, so it’s easy to spot what everyone else thinks is cool.

In Wikipedia, you can assign any number of categories to an article. Each category has its own page, and you can use that page to assign categories to that category. What ends up happening is that you get a hierarchy of categories that you can browse.

I’ve always liked Wikipedia’s categorization system, because it actually combines the best of the two worlds of taxonomy and folksonomy: you get the flexibility of the keyword system, since you’re not restricted to a rigid set vocabulary of keywords, yet you also get the order and predictability of a category tree. Another benefit is that everything, including subcategories, can belong to more than one category, so you don’t have to play “Where Would the Encyclopedist Put It?” to find an article.

Flickr and Wikipedia use the system that’s most appropriate, considering what the sites are used for. At Flickr, a social photo sharing service, the popular tags list helps you easily find good photos or photos of good things – in theory, of course. At Wikipedia, a massive encyclopedia, the category tree lets you easily find what exactly you’re looking for, or articles that are related to what you’re looking for.

This discussion on the proper uses for the different categorization schemes got me questioning the way I organize Planet Xavier. I just used the out-of-the-box method of listing new entries chronologically, newest entry on top. That makes sense for a blog aggregator, and it makes it easy to see what you have and haven’t read yet, but most of the time there’s one nagging issue: noise. Noise is the boring stuff that you’d rather not read (like maybe this post!), as opposed to signal, which is the good stuff that you do want to read. Noise includes posts that describe your cat’s lunch today, and random rants typed up at four in the morning, so incoherent that a monkey probably could’ve typed up something better. And to people like Justin, noise also includes any post by freshmen, sophomores, and juniors.

It’s only a matter of time before someone will ask me for a way to keep a particular blog entry of theirs (perhaps containing an announcement) on top for awhile. Sometimes that’s necessary because pX is just so fast-paced. That’s why I created this FAQ entry.

But I’m wondering if I should come up with a more sophisticated way of displaying blog entries. Like somehow featuring a really good blog entry in a box at the top without my intervention. Say you write a marvellous post about the latest scandal at St. X. Then you add a code like PLANET_FEATURE_THIS to get it up top. This requires a high level of trustworthiness on the part of the author. But it might just get people excited about blogging again, if they see what their peers have produced, without having to scroll past obnoxious entries like this one.

Speaking of priority, I have to back to writing some papers due tomorrow…