I guess not the estimable and very trusting MR. MOSES ODIAKA of NIGERIA, who needs a little help with moving $18 million and must be so excited that HE OFTEN WRITES IN ALL CAPS. Nor his compatriot, Dr. Akeem Biobaku Ph.D C.R.P, who can also use some banking assistance and kindly writes, “As a token of our appreciation to you, we shall make available to you at less than market price as much as 500,000 barrels of Automotive Gas Oil for spot lift.” But I digress, this is decade old news.
We tend to trust our friends and neighbors and like to ask them for a good car mechanic or for a super moist brownie recipe. But online these same people forward us emails with chain letters or with dozens of pictures of cutest kittens and biggest sunsets and oldest jokes. They expose us to Facebook survey scams and worst of all – invitations to FarmVille.
But, let’s say you actually want to find something online. Have you noticed lately that the Internet is kinda big? I’m not alone in not fully trusting sites of the manufacturers of “new and improved” products, who are predictably focused on selling stuff. A link in some online Yellow Pages does not impress me either. Perhaps multitudes of fellow online users can steer me in the right direction?
In 2003 a company named Delicious (formerly del.icio.us) was started with the idea that many good and social people would semi-randomly label (bookmark) web links with free-form tags, for others to find and follow. Think a democratic election with every candidate a write-in. Flickr did something similar for photos.
This was in stark contrast to the original Yahoo Directory, which is organized in nice categories, gobs and gobs of them. For example, venerable Hasbro Super Soaker is placed under Recreation > Toys > Toy Guns > Water Guns. Good people at Yahoo decided and manually put it there. Supersmart people call having all these categories a taxonomy. It sounds like a ‘taxi’ or a ‘tax’ for a reason: the Greek root refers to organizing and by inference to measuring. The Delicious way of having bunches of tags was dubbed, perhaps in jest, folksonomy. This approach can have its uses. For example, Delicious helped me find this video of using the water gun as a flame thrower. (Kids, don’t try this at home.)
Back in 2005, around the time when Yahoo bought Delicious and Flickr, Clay Shirky published an influential article Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags. Clay, a writer and an artist by education, was actually debating against taxonomy, a hierarchical classification system, such as the one started by Carl Linnaeus for biological species, rather than ontology – philosophy of categories of existence. So, six years later, which approach won out, hierarchical Yahoo Directory or free-for-all Delicious tags?
Yahoo Directory had been relegated to Internet history. Delicious barely enjoys half-a-million unique visitors per month, a tiny fraction of the overall Internet population, which instead flocks to multi-zillionaire Google, with its ‘secret algorithmic search sauce.’ And overall over four times more searches use Google than wayward Yahoo.
Oh, and Yahoo thought of closing and now sold off Delicious to YouTube founders. And it has been vehemently and rather unconvincingly denying that it will shut down Flickr eventually. So, regarding finding stuff online, as the saying goes, “If you want something done right – do it yourself.”