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Surfing the ‘awesome’ tag

My aggregators have aggregators and other meta matters

image of popurls.comNothing much was happening that Friday, just a couple of friends kicking back on the sectional surfing the ‘awesome’ tag on Flickr. “All the kids are doing it,” said my pal, joshing me for taking notes as she and her work buddy sat glued to a laptop in her new apartment. As usual, fieldwork was doubling for a social life, or perhaps it was the other way around. No matter, that’s the lot of a participant-observer and that night it was a particularly good one.

In addition to tea and sandwiches, I got to witness folksonomies–the method of using collaboratively generated tags to categorize online content–in action in everyday life. Not that I hadn’t tagged and searched tags. I’d just never done it in a social context, alongside watching TV, listening to music, and playing video games while hanging out with friends. But this isn’t really so new, I thought. I mean, a dozen years ago geeks hung out, sprawled in clusters around screens, surfing the net, and there were all sorts of ranking and recommendation sites to play with, like that early classic, “Hot or Not.”

The genre of creating new value from user-input (e.g. letters to the editor) or from metadata, whether stats or votes, is an old one that’s transcended lots of delivery technologies. But I had to admit, folksonomies had something new with user-input as meta data. Lisa Gitelman writes of media working on two levels: (1) as technology that enables communication and (2) as a set of associated cultural protocols and practices. Do genres count as cultural practices that can (sometimes, always) span delivery technologies?

And what distinguishes user-input from statistics generated by use? That is, is there a meaningful difference (emic or etic) between aggregation of user stats (e.g. popurls.com) and tagging (e.g. del.icio.us) as kinds of metadata? Both seem to have uses and entertainment value for the natives, but what’s in it for Joe Social Science? What do you know when you know someone by the trails he leaves?

The popularity of aggregators puts me in mind of filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s admonition:

“it is not sufficient to present fragments of reality on the screen, to represent life by its crumbs. These fragments must be elaborated upon so as to make an integrated whole which is, in turn, the thematic reality.”

(in Jean Rouch, 1975. `The Camera and Man.’ In P. Hockings, ed. Principles of Visual Anthropology. Mouton, The Hague.)

Clearly Vertov, who died in 1954, would have favored directory-driven portals over aggregators, and would have sided with Jaron Lanier in the kerfuffle over Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism, but maybe, just maybe, he would have been down with tags.

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  1. Has there been a study of what leads people to anthro? We often talk about Indiana Jones as a source but it seems that there are many more figures in pop culture which may lead students to our discipline.
    I wonder if geeks are influenced by people like esr and Larry Wall to give anthro a chance.

    Comment by Alexandre — June 25, 2007 @ 3:12 pm

  2. That’s a really interesting question. I don’t recall reading anything on the matter. What brought you to the discipline? I was born into it, but suppose I’d still have to explain why I stayed.

    As far as geeks and anthro, I’d have to say that while I was in the field at Bay Area tech start-ups in the mid-1990s, the geeks I worked with had a pretty good idea of anthropology and what I was doing as a participant-observer. Which is not to say they didn’t have a lot to learn about ethnocentrism =), but that’s an occupational hazard of the powerful, I believe.

    Comment by Jenny Cool — July 2, 2007 @ 1:06 pm

  3. I am just writing my thesis on the future of humanity linked to science fiction such as H.G Wells and J.G Ballard. Just wondering if anyone has any comments on this?

    Comment by emma — October 19, 2007 @ 11:17 am

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