Tagging captures the variety and commonalities in thinking about an object. When many people tag a url, it turns out that some of the tags are common, while some are unique. A lot of people, making decisions independently act in an intelligent fashion, and provide value for everyone. Del.icio.us manages to balance the individual’s selfish motivations, and the group good, in a manner I have not seen many social systems do. It’s a delicate balance, but del.icio.us maintains it very well. Let us look into how it maintains that balance, and why I think that the Lazy sheep bookmarklet disturbs it.
Cognitively speaking – just what is happening at the individual level when you tag a url? I encounter an article I would like to bookmark. Semantic networks related to the article are already active in my brain. When I press “post to del.icio.us” it’s not much more work to note down some of the more important associations.
Del.icio.us captures a process that happens at the cognitive level anyway. And in the process of capturing the associations, it reinforces them. When I note that this article is about “tagging” and “cognition”, I am explicitly informing myself that I am currently interested in “tagging” and “cognition”. So the process helps me keeps my bookmarks, and tells me a little about myself everytime.
At the social level, the moment I post to del.icio.us, I can see if there are others who are interested in the same article. If so, did they use the same tags? I can see how others think similarly and differently, and also see the long tail of idiosyncratic tags.
The whole thing works because I make an independent effort to tag the article, and find out posthoc how others tagged it. That is an essential ingredient of del.icio.us.
In the Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki identifies four factors that denote a wise crowd:
- diversity of opinion (each person should have some private information, even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts)
- independence (people’s opinions are not determined by the opinions of those around them)
- decentralization (people are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge)
- aggregation (some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision).
The Lazy sheep bookmarklet violates two of the four principles – “diversity of opinion”, and “independence”. The bookmarklet is described as a
“a del.icio.us bookmarklet that auto-tags and auto-describes your bookmarks.”
It makes some sense at the individual level – I can gain from the wisdom of the others, without doing any work. But even at the individual level, there are disadvantages. First, the auto-tags might not capture my idiosyncratic associations (reducing findability when I look for the article later on). Second, it replaces the self-knowledge with social knowledge. Instead of a moment of reflection on my current interests, I simply find out how others think about the topic. Social knowledge in the context of self-knowledge is a beautiful thing, mere social knowledge just encourages the sheep mentality (which is the point of the bookmarklet I guess).
At the social level (which is what worries me more), if enough people started doing this, the value of del.icio.us would be diluted. We would loose some of the richness of the longtail, and just reinforce what the majority is saying. The first few people who tagged the article would set the trend – others would merely follow.