The Hierarchies Are Flat (?)

I recently started reading Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams. I know, I know. The book was published in 2006, and I’m only just now reading it. However, the ideas I think are very relevant to what is happening in the current economy and discussions around the future of taxonomy.

Tapscott and Williams write about corporations: “While hierarchies are not vanishing, profound changes in the nature of technology, demographics, and the global economy are giving rise to powerful new models of production based on community, collaboration, and self-organization rather than on hierarchy and control.” Since taxonomies are a reflection of the needs and culture of an organization, I apply this notion to the future of hierarchical vocabularies as well.

First, changes in the nature of technology have changed the concept of how a hierarchical vocabulary should work. We have seen a shift from browsing tree-like structures to searching as search tools have improved. There has been more interest in faceted taxonomies because they are similar to filtered search and more tools support the ability to cross values from various vocabularies to find the locus of information.

Second, the demographics have changed. I was born on the cusp of technology ubiquity. Those younger than me assimilate technology like Borg while I still have the Mac commercial from the 1984 Olympics in the back of my mind which sends a dual message about control through technology and liberation through new technology. Tapscott and Williams claim this generation is made up of collaborators working in community and sharing information. Information must be liberated, but does it matter which information is liberated? Do you really want to “liberate” your SOX-compliant records?

Finally, the global economy has changed. It has changed since Wikinomics and The World Is Flat were written. In some ways, openness and collaboration have led to the rise of Google and Facebook while hierarchy and control have led to the near-death of the auto industry. However, if we see deregulation as a type of economic openness, apparently this wasn’t such a good idea. But I’m a taxonomist, not an economist.

As a taxonomist, I have an internal struggle between order, control, and hierarchy and theories of openness, collaboration, and user ownership. For example, I am someone who organizes my music collection (a majority of which is still on hard format CDs and even the inaccessible cassette tapes) by sound and mood rather than alphabetically or chronologically. In other words, I order my music by its similarity by type/genre and mood. This is a very subjective method of organization. Does the band Ladytron go next to my collection of 80s music because they are similar in sound or with my 90s electronica because it is composed electronically? Well, depends on how I FEEL, not on other inherent properties such as year released or the letter “L.” I always find the music I want to listen to because I know what mood I’m in, but this method of organization might be baffling to anyone else.

I love the idea of user participation and freedom in organizing information. I’m not completely sold on the wisdom of the crowd but maybe I could buy the wisdom of the right crowd or the right crowd for the job. On the other hand, I’ve seen what happens in a large corporation when there is unrestricted user tagging and addition of terms. I’ve also seen what happens when there is strict control on multiple vocabularies but these multiple vocabularies are created in isolation and there is no cross-group or cross-vocabulary agreement on definitions.

Further, Tapscott and Williams write, “users [of Flickr] add all of the content…[and] create their own self-organizing classification system for the site (by tagging photos with descriptive labels).” They also write that “in practice, tagging copes reasonably well with these problems [words with multiple meanings] and, in most cases, convergence around tags happen naturally.” Hm, this sounds suspiciously like getting together subject matter experts, deciding on terms and how they relate, and building a taxonomy.

My gut feelings about the future of open collaboration and participation in the creation of vocabularies and my practical mind forged by principles in information organization tell me that a hybrid is possible. Let information be free. Let the users liberate it with tags of their choosing. But let the taxonomist(s) be the authority on whether users really needs pictures, pics, and pix all in the same vocabulary or mixed among multiple vocabularies. This isn’t just about saving our jobs as information experts but making sure companies can find the information they need to perform. After all, if they don’t succeed, we’re all going to be looking for the next best thing.

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