Figuring Stuff Out

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What’s an Ontology?

Posted by Mike on March 3, 2007

I’m not actually going to answer that question, largely because in my field it’s highly confusing (and somewhat debatable). Instead I mean to write briefly about a rather old essay posted by a guy named Clay Shirky (he’s a little famous in some circles). I’ve come across this article a few times for various assignments I’ve done here at school and it’s always been one of my favorites (I would wager that even those of you not doing library school will find it at least a little entertaining).

Aside from his lively prose Shirky’s article centres on a topic that I have developed a keen interest in over the past two years, namely user tagging. There are a lot of competing terms for describing this phenomenon , but it seems that folksonomy has won the day (despite being completely inaccurate) over the next closest rival, democratic tagging (also completely misleading). If all of that sounds like Klingon to you, and you are not an even bigger Star Trek geek than I, perhaps a quick jaunt over to Wikipedia would be worth your while.

Any-who, Mr Shirky basically argues that days of the professionally created and maintained thesaurus (controlled terms, taxonomy, ontology) are quickly coming to be numbered. He uses a number of arguments, some more convincing than others, to prove this. In puttering around Google though I found a couple well crafted counter arguments to Shirky. I’m not at all negative about the potential of folksonomy, in fact I think that ignoring it or dismissing it is an enormous mistake, but to argue that it will wipe out all the old ways is foolish. Just like overly enthusiastic predictions were made that automated indexing would render human practitioners obsolete have proven false, the rise of folksonomy just represents another tool in the shelf for organizing information.


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