The Politics of the Playful Web

Clay makes some very valid points on my recent post about the limits of folksonomies, not least to point out the difference between personal taxonomies – as in tags that are only meant for one user – and vernacular taxonomies (Clay uses the example of theives’ slang from the 18th Century) that are shared between a group of people. Delicious, Flickr and other tagging services allow people to share personal taxonomies, and therefore to benefit from the amplified signals that emerge out of the unstructured noise.

But – and this is the important bit that I missed – those amplified signals have no infrastructure to support them. They exist without the community having to agree them, even in adhoc forms. They are simply amplified feedback. There are no politics in folksonomies, as there is no meta-level within the system that allows tagging communities to discuss the appropriateness or not of their emergent taxonomies. There is only the act of tagging, and the cumulative, amplified product of those tags. As Will Davies would probably put it – there are public goods, but no public realm.

This is truly radical, but brings me to the second point that Clay makes. He asks why Danah Boyd and I worry about ‘exclusion’ in these kind of systems. My first response would be to blame my art school/lit crit background, and say that years of exposure to critical theory creates a knee-jerk reaction to ask questions about access and inclusion. But its not really about political correctness, but rather a curiosity about how things like folksonomies play out as their scale increases.

In my post I suggest that folksonomies are valuable only whilst nothing is at stake. I might rephrase that, and say – what happens when folksonomies develop a political realm? At what scale, or in what contexts, will this occur? Can these structures retain their radical visibility and accessibility within political contexts? How might that help overcome some of the barriers to participation in exisiting political realms?

Wikipedia is a useful example of a ‘folk’ project that is having to grapple with politics. It has a very active meta-level debate about the value and authority of its texts, but by applying the same conditions to this meta-level as the content itself (everyone can participate, everything is visible), it seems to be able to cope with the demands of its emerging politics. Clay has raised this issue a lot , asking how we might signify these meta-narratives at the level of wikipedia content. But he’s also aware that the solutions that work now might not work at the next level:

“One of the mysteries of scale is that there’s no such thing as scaling well. You can make something 100 times bigger, and if it works, you think you’ve got it licked. But the next power of 10 can kill it. So I don’t know whether or not openness and co-creation are incompatible at Wikipedia scale.”

Personally i’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic about whether folksonomies can scale succesfully. I’m just curious. Wikipedia feels to me like the last toll booth on the ‘information superhighway’ – that vision of the internet as a network of monolithic libraries & information repositories that large organisations (like Time Warner and [*cough*] the BBC) got excited about in the 90’s. After wikipedia, its not highways any more, but dirt paths as far as the eye can see. Wikipedia straddles this border – its an off-ramp from the serene knowledge fantasies of the internet superhighway to the noisy, playful web of folksonomies.

But, as more and more people take the off-ramp, the dirt paths have a habit of becoming roads, and border towns turn into cities, and suddenly we’re having to think about governance, authority, access, and representation again. This hasn’t happened yet with many folksonomy projects, but it will. What kind of solutions will we come up with to solve these problems of scale? What kind of public realms will we create to discuss the politics of the playful web?

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