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Books and LibraryThing III December 13, 2006

Posted by caveblogem in Blogs and Blogging, Books, librarything, Market Research, My other blog, Other, statistical analysis, web 2.0.
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Tim Spaulding of LibraryThing writes:

“Well, why not just have LT add a field for putting that sort of data in, so that it can come up with percentages for personality types, signs and so forth. *Tagging* should be about the book, not the tagger. The tagger’s metadata resides one level up, right?”

I am deeply flattered that Tim, who apparently works at LibraryThing, would comment on my post.  I’m not at all sure what that bit about residing “one level up” means, because I am primarily a user of other peoples’ data.  This means that most of my databases are something I create by stringing together data from a wide variety of different sources, splicing them with available key variables and demographic data.  But Tim does pose an interesting question in the rest of it, to which I’d like to respond.

My offhand response, formulated while in the shower this morning, was going to be “well, Tim, companies, in my experience, just don’t move quickly enough to make that sort of change.  It would take quite a while, I imagine, to get LibraryThing to take note of the advantages of doing anything different.”  That obviously doesn’t make any sense, in this case, because this is clearly a company that moves quickly and thinks deeply about things, too.  And to add a field for this sort of thing might be a good way for LibraryThing to go about this sort of tagging.  I’d be happy to remove my tags and place them in the profile section, I guess, if LibraryThing would rather do it that way. 

But I disagree that tagging should be about the book and not the tagger.  One of the advantages of tagging is that it says as much about the perspectives of the tagger as it does about the book.  Tagging is about both, and more.  For example, I just finished reading Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series of books.  I could tag the books as science fiction, but that information is already coded in their LC and Dewey numbers, which LibraryThing makes available to us (and thank you, LibraryThing, for doing that.)  But later today I will tag them with some other tags that reflect my use of these books.  I am interested in these books because they show how libertarian science fiction novelists dealt with racial tension during the 1960s and 1970s.  In that respect they are similar to Robert Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold.  They also play with the idea of free will and predestination, possible absorption of the soul into a godhead, that sort of stuff.  So I’ll tag them with something about some Hindu ideas, like Samsara, or Atman and Brahman.  I’m currently reading Greg Bear’s Blood Music, which somebody told me is about nanotechnology.  It is not, but Bear’s vision of absorption into a larger community and the loss of individuality forms one of the recurring themes of Farmer’s book.  If I tag Bear’s book with the tag “Riverworld,” is this information about Bear’s book, my perception of Bear’s book, my perception of Farmer’s book, or Farmer’s book? 

When I was in graduate school I read Carlo Ginsburg’s marvelous The Cheese and the Worms.  Ginzburg studied the court proceedings of a trial of the Italian (if I remember correctly) Inquisition.  Now the court records recounted trial proceedings and the responses of the accused heretic.  But Ginzburg managed to pull from these records a story about how a 15th Century miller viewed cosmology–that’s what the records were about to him.  But to their writers they were about proper procedure.  Ginzburg’s book, to me, is about historical method, cultural studies, reader-response criticism, and that sort of thing.  If I tag the book this way, I am intruding sharply into your book-centered vision for tagging, aren’t I?

It seems to me that tags reflect information about a book, but also invariably reflect the reader’s ideas about what the book is about, which is a slightly more distant relationship, logically and grammatically, but often even more useful.

Take an example from Flickr, to simplify the discussion a little.  People assign tags to pictures based on what they think is important in a picture.  Maybe you take a picture of a bridge, but other people tag it “purple” because that’s what they are interested in.  If a lot of people use that tag, then more and more of the information stored in that tag represents a weird societal interest in the color purple, rather than the fact that the picture has purple in it.  The more people fixate on that, the more of the tag’s information reflect’s taggers’ interests.  Perhaps this weird societal interest in purple will go away in a little while; maybe it is just a fad.  If the information about people’s interest in purple is only in their profile, it is not stored with the date information about when they were interested in purple.  Placing it in a profile fixes it in time and space.  Well, I guess I didn’t simplify anything with that example.  Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that tags contain both information about users and about the thing they are using, whether a book, a picture, a website, or whatever. 

But there is something else I am trying to get across, and that is that while LibraryThing is very responsive, clearly, to its user community, other companies aren’t necessarily.  Why not go into my Flickr account and tag pictures I like with my personality as well?  Why not do the same in my del.icio.us account for websites I like?  If users have to have companies create a database field every time they want to record personal information, it makes signing up for new accounts a little onerous, doesn’t it (warning, possible startup company idea)?

And unless LT allows people to include what might be termed “profile tags” in their profile (eg.: Capricorn, Masochist, Chocolate Lover) and search these tags right along with the tags these users applied to books, it would be pretty limiting.  Will LT Do that?  It would be really, really cool. 

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