Experts vs. Users

May 2, 2009

Here’s an interesting paper from Stanford University that puts a twist on the folksonomy vs. taxonomy debate. Researchers compared the tags users of LibraryThing assigned to books with the keywords librarians used to describe the same texts. The results are interesting: users and experts developed similar category schemes, but applied them to different things. As the researchers note, expert tagging doesn’t bode well for retrieval. Point: users.

But don’t count the experts out yet. I’ve just been looking at the DBPedia ontology, and it’s pretty awful. Building is a specialization of Place, PlayboyPlaymate and FictionalCharacter are two of the few subclasses of Person, and archipelago is a relationship between islands, just to name a few. Ouch.

Any ontologist worth her salt can design a better ontology — but of course this ontology wasn’t designed at all. It’s derived from the structure of Wikipedia, and reflects community consensus about categories and relationships. In this case, I’ve got to give the point to the experts.

On the face of it, these cases seem to offer conflicting answers to the question of whether experts or users can better organize information. But it may be there are fundamental differences between the activities of creating tags and organizing a wiki.

The whole point of a tagging folksonomy is that users can implicitly assign category membership without needing to look at the way those categories fit together. At best, the tagging relationship has weak semantics. A tag is a bucket that similar things are thrown into, and the relationship between those things is that they share the same bucket. But when you create a new wikipedia page, you have to situate it relative to the pages that already exist.

My takeaway from this: tagging is a good strategy when you’re primarily concerned with retrieval over a large information space, while an expert design is preferable when it’s important to understand more detailed relationships between entities.

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