Ontology is Overrated

This is an extract (a summary by sentence extraction – like these old days text summarizers were doing ;) of Clay Shirky’s blog post titled ‘Ontology is Overrated‘.

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Today I want to talk about categorization, and […] I want to convince you that many of the ways we’re attempting to apply categorization to the electronic world are actually a bad fit.

What I think is coming instead are [..] organic ways of organizing information […], based on two units — the link, which can point to anything, and the tag, which is a way of attaching labels to links.

PART I: Classification and Its Discontents

The question ontology asks is: What kinds of things exist or can exist in the world, and what manner of relations can those things have to each other?

If you’ve got a large, ill-defined corpus, if you’ve got naive users, if your cataloguers aren’t expert, if there’s no one to say authoritatively what’s going on, then ontology is going to be a bad strategy.

One of the biggest problems with categorizing things in advance is that it forces the categorizers […] to guess what their users are thinking, and to make predictions about the future.

When people [are] offered search [e.g., Web search] and categorization [e.g., Web directory] side-by-side, fewer and fewer people [are] using categorization to find things.

Part II: The Only Group That Can Categorize Everything Is Everybody

Now imagine a world where everything can have a unique identifier. This should be easy, since that’s the world we currently live in — the URL gives us a way to create a globally unique ID for anything we need to point to.

And once you can do that, anyone can label those pointers, can tag those URLs, in ways that make them more valuable, and all without requiring top-down organization schemes.

As [Joshua] Schachter says of del.icio.us, “Each individual categorization scheme is worth less than a professional categorization scheme. But there are many, many more of them.” If you find a way to make it valuable to individuals to tag their stuff, you’ll generate a lot more data about any given object than if you pay a professional to tag it once and only once.

Well-managed, well-groomed organizational schemes get worse with scale, both because the costs of supporting such schemes at large volumes are prohibitive, and, as I noted earlier, scaling over time is also a serious problem. Tagging, by contrast, gets better with scale. With a multiplicity of points of view the question isn’t “Is everyone tagging any given link ‘correctly'”, but rather “Is anyone tagging it the way I do?” As long as at least one other person tags something they way you would, you’ll find it […].

We are moving away from binary categorization — books either are or are not entertainment — and into this probabilistic world, where N% of users think books are entertainment.

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