Tag: tagging

New Books: 'Tagging' and 'Mental Models'

March 12th, 2008 — 11:00am

If you’re inter­ested in tag­ging and social meta­data, social book­mark­ing, or infor­ma­tion man­age­ment, be sure to check out Gene Smith’s Tag­ging: People-Powered Meta­data for the Social Web recently pub­lished by from New Rid­ers. I reviewed some of the early drafts of the book, and it’s come together very nicely.
Tag­ging takes a very prac­ti­cal approach, and pro­vides an ample set of exam­ples in sup­port of the insight­ful analy­sis. After an overview of tag­ging and its value, the book addresses tag­ging sys­tem design, tags in rela­tion to tra­di­tional meta­data and clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tems, and cov­ers the user expe­ri­ence of cre­at­ing and nav­i­gat­ing tag clouds.
Gene likes to build things, so Tag­ging includes a chap­ter on tech­ni­cal design com­plete with sug­gested tools and tuto­ri­als for cre­at­ing your own tag­ging apps.
All in all, Tag­ging is a wor­thy intro­duc­tion to the sub­ject, and a guide for deeper explo­ration.
While we’re talk­ing books, kudos to Rosen­feld Media on the pub­li­ca­tion of their first book, Men­tal Mod­els; Align­ing Design Strat­egy with Human Behav­ior, by the very tal­ented Indi Young!
Men­tal Mod­els is richly illus­trated, filled with exam­ples, lucid, and accom­pa­nied by a con­sid­er­able amount of addi­tional con­tent from the Rosen­feld Media web­site.
Indi has con­sid­er­able expe­ri­ence teach­ing oth­ers the tech­niques and meth­ods behind cre­at­ing insight­ful men­tal mod­els for audi­ences and cus­tomers. Cog­ni­tive / frame­worky meth­ods can feel a bit heady at times (espe­cially how-to’s on those meth­ods), but Men­tal Mod­els is straight­for­ward read­ing through­out, and an emi­nently prac­ti­cal guide to using this impor­tant tool for user expe­ri­ence design and strat­egy.
Men­tal Mod­els is avail­able elec­tron­i­cally as a .pdf for indi­vid­ual and group licenses, or in hard copy; it’s choose your own medium in action.

Comments Off | Reading Room

The Value of the Network: Links As Social Capital

August 30th, 2007 — 3:17pm

This is a small site with mod­est traf­fic. But it is still the case that a sub­stan­tial set of inbound links lead peo­ple from diverse ori­gins — search engines, blogs, con­tent aggre­ga­tors, feed read­ers, direc­to­ries, etc. — to many des­ti­na­tions within the site every day. Some of these con­nec­tions are vis­i­ble in the del.icio.us tag clouds that appear with indi­vid­ual post­ings, my con­tri­bu­tion to the Web’s ongo­ing col­lec­tive exper­i­ment with tag­ging and social book­mark­ing.
French soci­ol­o­gist Pierre Bour­dieu named this set of con­nec­tions and the social rela­tion­ships asso­ci­ated with them in the early 1970s, coin­ing the term social cap­i­tal, and thereby inspir­ing legions of civic and inter­na­tional orga­ni­za­tions to cre­ate devel­op­ment, invest­ment, and man­age­ment strate­gies for this new valu­able kind of resource.
But what is the <a href=“http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metcalfe” onclick=“javascript:_gaq.push([’_trackEvent’,‘outbound-article’,‘http://en.wikipedia.org’]);“s_law”>value of the network?
Fast for­ward a bit, and we can see that no mat­ter how you choose to cal­cu­late that value, Google has built a busi­ness rely­ing the new resource of cumu­la­tive social cap­i­tal, using it via mech­a­nisms such as latent seman­tic index­ing.
And we can see that in giv­ing form and focus to the idea of social cap­i­tal, Bour­dieu set the con­cep­tual stage for the recent explo­sion of social media and net­work­ing appli­ca­tions. Simul­ta­ne­ously des­ti­na­tions — albeit of unknown lifes­pan — and busi­ness ven­tures, the social net­works are recent exem­plars of long­time cul­tural move­ments of reifi­ca­tion, vir­tu­al­iza­tion, and visu­al­iza­tion of fields — another key con­cept iden­ti­fied by Bour­dieu.
Behind the scenes, the infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture that solid­i­fies the lim­ited social cap­i­tal of this site in phys­i­cal / dig­i­tal form is a mot­ley col­lec­tion of dis­parately named HTML files, tag des­ti­na­tion pages, cgi-powered con­tent streams, RSS feeds, local search results sets, etc. The prospect of get­ting another pub­lish­ing plat­form to mimic this mis­cel­lany was — like tun­ing an instru­ment to play songs com­posed with notes from another music sys­tem — not some­thing I could do as quickly and cheaply.
And so in com­bi­na­tion with the per­pet­ual urgency of the DIY mind­set, the imper­a­tive of pre­serv­ing the value of the exist­ing store of social cap­i­tal made the deci­sion to upgrade along an exist­ing path to MT4 sim­ple.
Archi­tec­turally, this is the equiv­a­lent of stick­ing with the brand name you know well.

Comment » | Networks and Systems

Joining the Tag Team At Tagsonomy.com

July 22nd, 2007 — 3:11pm

I’ll be writ­ing about tag­ging, tag clouds, folk­sonomies, and related top­ics over at Tagsonomy.com going for­ward. As Chris­t­ian Crum­lish observed, it’s been quite at Tagsonomy.com for a while, but that doesn’t mean that tag­ging is any­where close to being fully fig­ured out.
To help kick­start the con­ver­sa­tion, I’ve put up two posts since offi­cially join­ing the Tag Team; The Tag­ging Hype Cycle, and Is Tag­ging a Dis­rup­tive Inno­va­tion?.
Com­ments are already flow­ing in — be sure to join the discussion.

Comment » | Tag Clouds

2.3% Of Chinese Internet Users Tag, Baidu Reports

March 4th, 2007 — 7:54pm

A post­ing from China Web2.0 Review shared results of a report on Chi­nese tag­ging rates released by Baidu, China’s lead­ing search engine.
I was not able to locate a trans­la­tion of the orig­i­nal report from Baidu, so I’ll quote the sum­mary from China Web2.0 Review:

Accord­ing to the report, only 2.3% of inter­net users have ever used tag, they mainly use tags in social book­mark­ing and blogs. I don’t know the meth­ods of data col­lec­tion, but the report said about 15 mil­lion Chi­nese web­pages were book­marked by users, on aver­age each user has saved 40 online book­marks. Among them, over 90% users add less than two tags for a book­mark.
And based on the tags of user saved book­marks, the most used tags are “soft­ware down­load”, “BBS”, “enter­tain­ment”, “game” and “learn­ing”.

We don’t know which ser­vices are included for analy­sis in the report, so I have no idea to which extent I can trust it. But based on my obser­va­tion, I agree with the basic find­ing of the report, even though more and more ser­vices have embod­ied tag­ging fea­ture, only a very small part of early-adopters in China indeed use it.
Two things come to mind right away:

  1. The matu­rity, struc­ture, and usage pat­terns of the Inter­net in China are not directly com­pa­ra­ble to the matu­rity matu­rity, struc­ture, and usage pat­terns of the Inter­net else­where (largely due to sub­stan­tial restric­tions and cen­sor­ship by the Chi­nese government)
  2. Offi­cial Chinse posi­tions are not fully reli­able, and so the num­bers, con­text, and usage described could be very dif­fer­ent from real practices

Still, even with the absence of solid qual­i­fy­ing, cor­rob­o­rat­ing, or con­tex­tual infor­ma­tion, this rate of adop­tion for tag­ging seems con­sis­tent with the rest of the very rapid pace of mod­ern­iza­tion in China.
And as the First Prin­ci­ple of Tag Clouds — “Where there’s tags, there’s a tag cloud” — says, this means there are quite a few tag clouds on the way in China.

2 comments » | Tag Clouds

10 Best Practices For Displaying Tag Clouds

February 25th, 2007 — 1:31am

This is a short list of best prac­tices for ren­der­ing and dis­play­ing tag clouds that I orig­i­nally cir­cu­lated on the IXDG mail­ing list, and am now post­ing in response to sev­eral requests. These best prac­tices are not in order of pri­or­ity — they’re sim­ple enumerated.

  1. Use a sin­gle color for the tags in the ren­dered cloud: this will allow vis­i­tors to iden­tify finer dis­tinc­tions in the size dif­fer­ences. Employ more than one color with dis­cre­tion. If using more than one color, offer the capa­bil­ity to switch between sin­gle color and mul­ti­ple color views of the cloud.
  2. Use a sin­gle sans serif font fam­ily: this will improve the over­all read­abil­ity of the ren­dered cloud.
  3. If accu­rate com­par­i­son of rel­a­tive weight (see­ing the size dif­fer­ences amongst tags) is more impor­tant than over­all read­abil­ity, use a mono­space font.
  4. If com­pre­hen­sion of tags and under­stand­ing the mean­ing is more impor­tant, use a vari­ably spaced font that is easy to read.
  5. Use con­sis­tent and pro­por­tional spac­ing to sep­a­rate the tags in the ren­dered tag cloud. Pro­por­tional means that the spac­ing between tags varies based on their size; typ­i­cally more space is used for larger sizes. Con­sis­tent means that for each tag of a cer­tain size, the spac­ing remains the same. In html, spac­ing is often deter­mined by set­ting style para­me­ters like padding or mar­gins for the indi­vid­ual tags.
  6. Avoid sep­a­ra­tor char­ac­ters between tags: they can be con­fused for small tags.
  7. Care­fully con­sider ren­der­ing in flash, or another vector-based method, if your users will expe­ri­ence the cloud largely through older browsers / agents: the font ren­der­ing in older browsers is not always good or con­sis­tent, but it is impor­tant that the cloud offer text that is read­ily digestible by search and index­ing engines, both locally and publicly
  8. If ren­der­ing the cloud in html, set the font size of ren­dered tags using whole per­cent­ages, rather than pixel sizes or dec­i­mals: this gives the dis­play agent more free­dom to adjust its final rendering.
  9. Do not insert line breaks: this allows the ren­der­ing agent to adjust the place­ment of line breaks to suit the ren­der­ing context.
  10. Offer the abil­ity to change the order between at least two options — alpha­bet­i­cal, and one vari­able dimen­sion (over­all weight, fre­quency, recency, etc.)

For fun, I’ve run these 10 best prac­tices through Tagcrowd. The major con­cepts show up well — font, color, and size are promi­nent — but obvi­ously the specifics of the things dis­cussed remain opaque.
Best Prac­tices For Dis­play as a Text Cloud

12 comments » | Tag Clouds

PEW Report Shows 28% Of Internet Users Have Tagged

February 1st, 2007 — 2:30pm

The Pew Inter­net & Amer­i­can Life Project just released a report on tag­ging that finds
28% of inter­net users have tagged or cat­e­go­rized con­tent online such as pho­tos, news sto­ries or
blog posts. On a typ­i­cal day online, 7% of inter­net users say they tag or cat­e­go­rize online con­tent.

The authors note “This is the first time the Project has asked about tag­ging, so it is not clear exactly how fast the trend is grow­ing.“
Wow — I’d say it’s grow­ing extremely quickly. Though I am on record as a believer in the bright future of tag clouds, I admit I’m sur­prised by these results. The fact that 7% of inter­net users tag daily is what’s most sig­nif­i­cant: it’s an indi­ca­tion of very rapid adop­tion for the prac­tice of tag­ging in many dif­fer­ent con­texts and many dif­fer­ent kinds of audi­ences, given it’s brief his­tory.
I’d guess this adop­tion rate com­pares to the rates of adop­tion for other new network-dependent or emer­gent archi­tec­tures like P2P music shar­ing or on-line music buy­ing.
You’re cor­rect if you’re think­ing there is a dif­fer­ence between tag­ging and tag clouds. And if you’ve read the report and the accom­pa­ny­ing inter­view with Dr. Wein­berger, you’ve likely real­ized that nei­ther Dr. Weinberger’s inter­view nor the report specif­i­cally addresses tag cloud usage. But remem­ber the First Prin­ci­ple of Tag Clouds: “Where there’s tags, there’s a tag cloud.” By def­i­n­i­tion, any item with an asso­ci­ated col­lec­tion of tags has a tag cloud, regard­less of whether that tag cloud is directly vis­i­ble and action­able in the user expe­ri­ence. So that 7% of inter­net users who tag daily are by default cre­at­ing and work­ing with tag clouds daily.
It might be time for tag clouds to look into get­ting some sun­glasses.

Comment » | Tag Clouds

Cartograms, Tag Clouds and Visualization

May 22nd, 2006 — 10:56pm

I was enjoy­ing some of the engag­ing car­tograms avail­able from Worldmap­per, when I real­ized tag clouds might have some strong par­al­lels with car­tograms. After a quick sub­sti­tu­tion exer­cise, I’ve come to believe tag clouds could be to lists of meta­data what car­tograms are to maps; attempted solu­tions to sim­i­lar visu­al­iza­tion prob­lems dri­ven by com­mon and his­tor­i­cally con­sis­tent infor­ma­tion needs.
Here’s the train of thought behind the anal­ogy. Car­tograms are the dis­torted but cap­ti­vat­ing maps that change the famil­iar shapes of places on a map to visu­ally show data about geo­graphic loca­tions. Car­tograms change the way loca­tions appear to make a point or com­mu­ni­cate rel­a­tive dif­fer­ences in the under­ly­ing data; for exam­ple, by mak­ing coun­tries with higher GDP (gross domes­tic prod­uct) big­ger, and those with lower GDP smaller. In the exam­ple below, Japan’s size is much larger than it’s geo­graphic area, because it’s GDP is so high (it’s the dark green blob on the far right, much larger than China or India), while Africa is nearly invis­i­ble.
Gross Domes­tic Prod­uct

Tag clouds pur­sue the same goal: to enhance our under­stand­ing by com­mu­ni­cat­ing con­tex­tual mean­ing through changes in the way a set of things are visu­al­ized, rely­ing addi­tional dimen­sions of infor­ma­tion to make con­text explicit. Where car­tograms change geo­graphic units, tag clouds change the dis­play of a list of labels (the end point of a chain of link­ages con­nect­ing con­cepts to focuses) to com­mu­ni­cate the seman­tic impor­tance or con­text of the under­ly­ing con­cepts shown in the list.
Visu­ally, the rela­tion­ship of clouds to lists is sim­i­lar to that of maps and car­tograms; com­pare these two ren­der­ings of the most pop­u­lar search terms recorded by nytimes.com, one a sim­ple list and the other a tag cloud.
List Ren­der­ing of Search Terms

Cloud Ren­der­ing of Search Terms

This expla­na­tion of car­tograms from Car­togram Cen­tral a site sup­ported by the U.S. Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey and tional Cen­ter for Geo­graphic Infor­ma­tion and Analy­sis makes the par­al­lels clearer, in greater detail.
“A car­togram is a type of graphic that depicts attrib­utes of geo­graphic objects as the object’s area. Because a car­togram does not depict geo­graphic space, but rather changes the size of objects depend­ing on a cer­tain attribute, a car­togram is not a true map. Car­tograms vary on their degree in which geo­graphic space is changed; some appear very sim­i­lar to a map, how­ever some look noth­ing like a map at all.“
Now for the cut and paste. Sub­sti­tute ‘tag cloud’ for car­togram, ‘seman­tic’ for geo­graphic, and ‘list’ in for map, and the same expla­na­tion reads:
“A tag cloud is a type of graphic that depicts attrib­utes of seman­tic objects as the object’s area. Because a tag cloud does not depict seman­tic space, but rather changes the size of objects depend­ing on a cer­tain attribute, a tag cloud is not a true list. Tag Clouds vary on their degree in which seman­tic space is changed; some appear very sim­i­lar to a list, how­ever some look noth­ing like a list at all.“
This is a good match for the cur­rent under­stand­ing of tag clouds.
Div­ing in deeper, Car­togram Cen­tral offers an excerpt from Car­tog­ra­phy: The­matic Map Design, that goes into more detail about the spe­cific char­ac­ter­is­tics of car­tograms.
Erwin Raisz called car­tograms ‘dia­gram­matic maps.’ Today they might be called car­tograms, value-by-area maps, anamor­phated images or sim­ply spa­tial trans­for­ma­tions. What­ever their name, car­tograms are unique rep­re­sen­ta­tions of geo­graph­i­cal space. Exam­ined more closely, the value-by-area map­ping tech­nique encodes the mapped data in a sim­ple and effi­cient man­ner with no data gen­er­al­iza­tion or loss of detail. Two forms, con­tigu­ous and non-contiguous, have become pop­u­lar. Map­ping require­ments include the preser­va­tion of shape, ori­en­ta­tion con­ti­gu­ity, and data that have suit­able vari­a­tion. Suc­cess­ful com­mu­ni­ca­tion depends on how well the map reader rec­og­nizes the shapes of the inter­nal enu­mer­a­tion units, the accu­racy of esti­mat­ing these areas, and effec­tive leg­end design. Com­plex forms include the two-variable map. Car­togram con­struc­tion may be by man­ual or com­puter means. In either method, a care­ful exam­i­na­tion of the logic behind the use of the car­togram must first be under­taken.“
Doing the same sub­sti­tu­tion exer­cise on this excerpt with the addi­tion of ‘rel­e­vance’ for value, ‘size’ for area, and ‘term’ for shape, yields sim­i­lar results:
“Erwin Raisz called tag clouds ‘dia­gram­matic lists.’ Today they might be called tag clouds, relevance-by-size lists, anamor­phated images or sim­ply spa­tial trans­for­ma­tions. What­ever their name, tag clouds are unique rep­re­sen­ta­tions of seman­tic space. Exam­ined more closely, the relevance-by-size list­ing tech­nique encodes the listed data in a sim­ple and effi­cient man­ner with no data gen­er­al­iza­tion or loss of detail. Two forms, con­tigu­ous and non-contiguous, have become pop­u­lar. List­ing require­ments include the preser­va­tion of term, ori­en­ta­tion, con­ti­gu­ity, and data that have suit­able vari­a­tion. Suc­cess­ful com­mu­ni­ca­tion depends on how well the list reader rec­og­nizes the terms (of the inter­nal enu­mer­a­tion units), the accu­racy of esti­mat­ing these sizes, and effec­tive leg­end design. Com­plex forms include the two-variable list. Tag cloud con­struc­tion may be by man­ual or com­puter means. In either method, a care­ful exam­i­na­tion of the logic behind the use of the tag cloud must first be under­taken.“
The cor­re­spon­dence here is strong as well.
Sta­ble Need
The fact that car­tograms and tag clouds show close par­al­lels means that while the tag cloud may be a new user inter­face ele­ment emerg­ing for the Web (and major desk­top appli­ca­tions like Out­look, in the case of Tagloc­ity), tag clouds as a type of visu­al­iza­tion have strong prece­dents in other much more mature user expe­ri­ence con­texts, such as the dis­play of mul­ti­ple dimen­sions of infor­ma­tion within geo­graphic or geospa­tial frames of ref­er­ence. Instances of strong cor­re­spon­dence of prob­lem solv­ing approach in both mature and emerg­ing con­texts could indi­cate sim­ple appli­ca­tion of par­al­lel fram­ing (from the mature con­text to the emerg­ing con­text) as an untested con­di­tional, until the true extent of diver­gence sep­a­rat­ing the two con­texts is under­stood. This is very com­mon new media.
Instead, in the case of tag clouds, I think it points at sta­ble needs dri­ving struc­turally sim­i­lar solu­tions to the basic prob­lem of how to visu­ally com­mu­ni­cate impor­tant rela­tion­ships and addi­tional dimen­sions of mean­ing under the lim­i­ta­tions of inher­ent flat­ness. The par­al­lels between car­tograms and tag clouds place the appear­ance of the tag cloud within the larger his­tory of con­tin­u­ing explo­ration of new ways of visu­al­iz­ing infor­ma­tion. In this view, tag clouds are a recent man­i­fes­ta­tion of the sta­ble need to cre­ate strong and effec­tive visual ways of con­vey­ing more than mem­ber­ship in a one-dimensional set (the list), or loca­tion and extent within a two-dimensional coör­di­nate sys­tem (the map).

1 comment » | Ideas, Tag Clouds

Tag Clouds: "A New User Interface?"

May 3rd, 2006 — 10:58pm

In Piv­ot­ing on tags to cre­ate bet­ter nav­i­ga­tion UI Matt McAl­lis­ter offers the idea that we’re see­ing “a new user inter­face evolv­ing out of tag data,” and uses Wikio as an exam­ple. For con­text, he places tag clouds within a con­tin­uüm of the evo­lu­tion of web nav­i­ga­tion, from list views to the new tag-based nav­i­ga­tion emerg­ing now.
It’s an insight­ful post, and it allows me to build on strong ground­work to talk more about why and how tag clouds dif­fer from ear­lier forms of nav­i­ga­tion, and will become [part of] a new user inter­face.
Matt iden­ti­fies five ‘leaps’ in web nav­i­ga­tion inter­faces that I’ll summarize:

  1. List view; a list of links
  2. Left-hand col­umn; a stan­dard loca­tion for lists of links used to navigate
  3. Search boxes and results pages; mak­ing very large lists manageable
  4. Tab nav­i­ga­tion; a list of other nav­i­ga­tion lists
  5. Tag nav­i­ga­tion; tag clouds

A Les­son in ‘Lis­tory’
As Matt men­tions, all four pre­de­ces­sors to tag based nav­i­ga­tion are really vari­a­tions on the under­ly­ing form of the list. There’s use­ful his­tory in the evo­lu­tion of lists as web nav­i­ga­tion tools. Early lists used for nav­i­ga­tion were sta­tic, cho­sen by a site owner, ordered, and flat: recall the lists of favorite sites that appeared at the bot­tom of so many early per­sonal home pages.
These basic nav­i­ga­tion lists evolved a vari­ety of order­ing schemes, (alpha­bet­i­cal, numeric), began to incor­po­rate hier­ar­chy (shown as sub-menus in nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems, or as indent­ing in the left-column Matt men­tions), and allowed users to change their order­ing, for exam­ple by sort­ing on a vari­ety of fields or columns in search results.
From sta­tic lists whose con­tents do not change rapidly and reflect a sin­gle point of view, the lists employed for web nav­i­ga­tion and search results then became dynamic, per­son­al­ized, and reflec­tive of mul­ti­ple points of view. Ama­zon and other e-commerce des­ti­na­tions offered recently viewed items (yours or oth­ers), things most requested, sets bounded by date (pub­lished last year), sets dri­ven by vary­ing para­me­ters (related arti­cles), and lists deter­mined by the nav­i­ga­tion choices of oth­ers who fol­lowed sim­i­lar paths.)
But they remained fun­da­men­tally lists. They item­ized or enu­mer­ated choices of one kind or another, indi­cated implicit or explicit prece­dence through order­ing or the absence of order­ing, and were designed for lin­ear inter­ac­tion pat­terns: start at the begin­ning (or the end, if you pre­ferred an alter­na­tive per­spec­tive — I still habit­u­ally read mag­a­zines from back to front…) and work your way through.
Tag clouds are dif­fer­ent from lists, often by con­tents and pre­sen­ta­tion, and more impor­tantly by basic assump­tion about the kind of inter­ac­tion they encour­age. On tag-based nav­i­ga­tion Matt says, “This is a new layer that pre­empts the search box in a way. The visual rep­re­sen­ta­tion of it is a tag cloud, but the inter­ac­tion is more like a pivot.” Matt’s men­tion of the inter­ac­tion hits on an impor­tant aspect that’s key to under­stand­ing the dif­fer­ences between clouds and lists: clouds are not lin­ear, and are not designed for lin­ear con­sump­tion in the fash­ion of lists.
I’m not say­ing that no one will read clouds left to right (with Roman alpha­bets), or right to left if they’re in Hebrew, or in any other way. I’m say­ing that tag clouds are not meant for ‘read­ing’ in the same way that lists are. As they’re com­monly visu­al­ized today, clouds sup­port mul­ti­ple entry points using visual dif­fer­en­tia­tors such as color and size.
Start­ing in the mid­dle of a list and wan­der­ing around just increases the amount of visual and cog­ni­tive work involved, since you need to remem­ber where you started to com­plete your sur­vey. Start­ing in the “mid­dle” of a tag cloud — if there is such a loca­tion — with a brightly col­ored and big juicy visual morsel is *exactly* what you’re sup­posed to do. It could save you quite a lot of time and effort, if the cloud is well designed and prop­erly ren­dered.
Kunal Anand cre­ated a visu­al­iza­tion of the inter­sec­tions of his del.icio.us tags that shows the dif­fer­ences between a cloud and a list nicely. This is at heart a pic­ture, and accord­ingly you can start look­ing at it any­where / any­way you pre­fer.
Visu­al­iz­ing My Del.icio.us Tags

We all know what a list looks like…
iTunes Play Lists

What’s In a Name?
Describ­ing a tag cloud as a weighted list (I did until I’d thought about it fur­ther) misses this impor­tant qual­i­ta­tive dif­fer­ence, and reflects our early stages of under­stand­ing of tag clouds. The term “weighted list” is a list-centered view of tag clouds that comes from the pre­ced­ing frame of ref­er­ence. It’s akin to describ­ing a com­puter as an “arith­metic engine”, or the print­ing press as “mov­able type”.
[Aside: The label for tag clouds will prob­a­bly change, as we develop con­cepts and lan­guage to frame new the user expe­ri­ences and infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ments that include clouds. For exam­ple, the lan­guage Matt uses — the word ‘pivot’ when he talks about the expe­ri­ence of nav­i­gat­ing via the tag cloud in Wikio, not the word ‘fol­low’ which is a default for describ­ing nav­i­ga­tion — in the post­ing and his screen­cast reflects a pos­si­ble shift in fram­ing.]
A Cam­era Obscura For the Seman­tic Land­scape
I’ve come to think of a tag cloud as some­thing like the image pro­duced by a cam­era obscura.
Cam­era Obscura
Where the cam­era obscura ren­ders a real-world land­scape, a tag cloud shows a seman­tic land­scape like those cre­ated by Amber Frid-Jimenez at MIT.
Seman­tic Land­scape

Seman­tic Land­scape

Like a cam­era obscura image, a tag cloud is a fil­tered visu­al­iza­tion of a mul­ti­di­men­sional world. Unlike a cam­era obscura image, a tag cloud allows move­ment within the land­scape. And unlike a list, tag clouds can and do show rela­tion­ships more com­plex than one-dimensional lin­ear­ity (expe­ri­enced as prece­dence). This abil­ity to show more than one dimen­sion allows clouds to reflect the struc­ture of the envi­ron­ment they visu­al­ize, as well as the con­tents of that envi­ron­ment. This frees tag clouds from the lim­i­ta­tion of sim­ply item­iz­ing or enu­mer­at­ing the con­tents of a set, which is the fun­da­men­tal achieve­ment of a list.
Ear­lier, I shared some obser­va­tions on the struc­tural evo­lu­tion — from sta­tic and flat to hier­ar­chi­cal and dynamic — of the lists used as web nav­i­ga­tion mech­a­nisms. As I’ve ven­tured else­where, we may see a sim­i­lar evo­lu­tion in tag clouds.
It is already clear that we’re wit­ness­ing evo­lu­tion in the pre­sen­ta­tion of tag clouds in step with their greater visu­al­izatin capa­bil­i­ties. Clouds now rely on an expand­ing vari­ety of visual cues to show an increas­ingly detailed view of the under­ly­ing seman­tic land­scape: prox­im­ity, depth, bright­ness, inten­sity, color of item, color of field around item. I expect clouds will develop other cues to help depict the many con­nec­tions (per­ma­nent or tem­po­rary) link­ing the labels in a tag cloud. It’s pos­si­ble that tag clouds will offer a user expe­ri­ence sim­i­lar to some of the ontol­ogy man­age­ment tools avail­able now.
Is this “a new user inter­face”? That depends on how you define new. In Shap­ing Things, author and futur­ist Bruce Ster­ling sug­gests, “the future com­posts the past” — mean­ing that new ele­ments are sub­sumed into the accu­mu­la­tion of lay­ers past and present. In the con­text of nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems and tag clouds, that implies that we’ll see mix­tures of lists from the four pre­vi­ous stages of nav­i­ga­tion inter­face, and clouds from the lat­est leap; a fusion of old and new.
Exam­ples of this com­post­ing abound, from 30daytags.com to Wikio that Matt McAl­lis­ter exam­ined.
30DayTags.com Tag Clouds

Wikio Tag Cloud

As lists encour­aged lin­ear inter­ac­tions as a result of their struc­ture, it’s pos­si­ble that new user inter­faces rely­ing on tag clouds will encour­age dif­fer­ent kinds of seek­ing or find­ing behav­iors within infor­ma­tion expe­ri­ences. In “The endan­gered joy of serendip­ity” William McK­een bemoans the decrease of serendip­ity as a result of pre­cisely directed and tar­geted media, search­ing, and inter­ac­tions. Tag clouds — by offer­ing many con­nec­tions and mul­ti­ple entry paths simul­ta­ne­ously — may help reju­ve­nate serendip­ity in dan­ger in a world of closely focused lists.

2 comments » | Ideas, Tag Clouds

NYTimes.com Redesign Includes Tag Clouds

April 11th, 2006 — 9:58pm

Though you may not have noticed it at first (I didn’t — they’re located a few steps off the front page), the recently launched design of NYTimes.com includes tag clouds. After a quick review, I think their ver­sion is a good exam­ple of a cloud that offers some increased capa­bil­i­ties and con­tex­tual infor­ma­tion that together fall in line with the likely direc­tions of tag cloud evo­lu­tion we’ve con­sid­ered before.
Specif­i­cally, the New York Times tag cloud:

  1. allows users to change the cloud’s con­text — and thus its con­tent — with a set of con­trols (vis­i­ble as tabs, run­ning across the top)
  2. lets cloud con­sumers change the dis­play behav­ior of the cloud by switch­ing modes from list to cloud in-line, not out­side the user’s area of activity
  3. sup­ports the chain of under­stand­ing for cloud con­sumers by pro­vid­ing clear indi­ca­tion of the time period cov­ered (the note about update frequency)
  4. offers [lim­ited] capa­bil­i­ties to work with / share tag cloud con­tent out­side the cloud via email — though the mes­sage con­tains only a link to the cloud page, and not a full rendering

NYtimes.com Tag Cloud

The NYTimes.com tag cloud shows the most pop­u­lar search terms used by read­ers within three time frames: the last 24 hours, the last 7 days, and the last 30 days. Choos­ing search terms as the makeup for a cloud is a bit curi­ous — but it may be as close to socially gen­er­ated meta­data as seemed rea­son­able for a first explo­ration (one that doesn’t require a sub­stan­tial change in the busi­ness or pub­lish­ing model).
Given the way that clouds lend them­selves to show­ing mul­ti­ple dimen­sions of mean­ing, such as change over time, I think the Times tag cloud would be more valu­able if it offered the option to see all three time frames at once. I put together a quick cut and paste of a con­cept screen that shows this sort of lay­out:
Screen Con­cept: 3 Clouds for Dif­fer­ent Time Frames

In an exam­ple of the rapid mor­ph­ing of memes and def­i­n­i­tions to fit shift­ing usage con­texts (as in Thomas Vanderwal’s obser­va­tions on the shift­ing usage of folk­son­omy) the NYTimes.com kept the label tag cloud, while this is more prop­erly a weighted list: the tags shown are in fact search terms, and not labels applied to a focus of some kind by tag­gers.
It’s plain from the lim­ited pres­ence and vis­i­bil­ity of clouds within the over­all site that the staff at NYTimes.com are still explor­ing the value of tag clouds for their spe­cific needs (which I think is a mature approach), oth­er­wise I imag­ine the new design con­cept and nav­i­ga­tion model would uti­lize and empha­sized tag clouds to a greater degree. So far, the Times uses tag clouds only in the new “Most Pop­u­lar” sec­tion, and they are offered as an alter­na­tive to the default list style pre­sen­ta­tion of pop­u­lar search terms. This posi­tion within the site struc­ture places them a few steps in, and off the stan­dard front page-to-an-article user flow that must be one of the core sce­nar­ios sup­ported by the site’s infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture.
NYTimes.com User Flow to Tag Cloud

Still, I do think it’s a clear sign of increas­ing aware­ness of the poten­tial strength of tag clouds as a way of visu­al­iz­ing seman­tic infor­ma­tion. The Times is an estab­lished entity (occa­sion­ally serv­ing as the def­i­n­i­tion of ‘the estab­lish­ment’), and so is less likely to endan­ger estab­lished rela­tion­ships with cus­tomers by chang­ing its core prod­uct across any of the many chan­nels used for deliv­ery.
Ques­tions of risk aside, tag clouds (here I mean any visu­al­iza­tion of seman­tic meta­data) couLd be a very effec­tive way to scan the head­lines for a sense of what’s hap­pen­ing at the moment, and the shift­ing impor­tance of top­ics in rela­tion to on another. With a tag cloud high­light­ing “immi­gra­tion”, “duke”, and “judas”, vis­i­tors can imme­di­ately begin to under­stand what is news­wor­thy — at least in the minds of NYTimes.com read­ers.
At first glance, low­er­ing the amount of time spent read­ing the news could seem like a strong busi­ness dis­in­cen­tive for using tag clouds to stream­line nav­i­ga­tion and user flow. With more con­sid­er­a­tion, I think it points to a new poten­tial appli­ca­tion of tag clouds to enhance com­pre­hen­sion and find­abil­ity by giv­ing busy cus­tomers pow­er­ful tools to increase the speed and qual­ity of their judg­ments about what to devote their atten­tion to in order to acheive under­stand­ing greater depth. In the case of pub­li­ca­tions like the NYTimes.com, tag clouds may be well suited for con­vey­ing snap­shots or sum­maries of com­plex and deep domains that change quickly (what’s the news?), and offer­ing rapid nav­i­ga­tion to spe­cific areas or top­ics.
A new user expe­ri­ence that offers a vari­ety of tag clouds in more places might allow dif­fer­ent kinds of move­ment or flow through the larger envi­ron­ment, enabling new behav­iors and sup­port­ing dif­fer­ing goals than the cur­rent infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture and user expe­ri­ence.
Pos­si­ble Screen Flow Incor­po­rat­ing Clouds

Step­ping back from the specifics of the design, a broader ques­tion is “Why tag clouds now?” They’re cer­tainly timely, but that’s not a busi­ness model. This is just spec­u­la­tion, but I recall job post­ings for an Infor­ma­tion Archi­tect posi­tion within the NYTimes.com group on that appeared on sev­eral recruit­ing web­sites a few months ago — maybe the new team mem­bers wanted or were directed to include tag clouds in this design? If any of those involved are allowed to share insights, I’d very much like to hear the thoughts of the IAs / design­ers / prod­uct man­agers or other team mem­bers respon­si­ble for includ­ing tag clouds in the new design and struc­ture.
And in light of Mathew Patterson’s com­ments here about cus­tomer accep­tance of mul­ti­ple clouds in other set­tings and con­texts (price­line europe), I’m curi­ous about any usabil­ity test­ing or other user research that might have been done around the new design, and any the find­ings related to tag clouds.

Comment » | Ideas

Tag Clouds: Navigation For Landscapes of Meaning

March 14th, 2006 — 4:53pm

I believe the value of sec­ond gen­er­a­tion clouds will be to offer ready nav­i­ga­tion and access to deep, com­plex land­scapes of mean­ing built up from the cumu­la­tive seman­tic infor­ma­tion con­tained in many inter­con­nected tag clouds. I’d like share some thoughts on this idea; I’ll split the dis­cus­sion into two posts, because there’s a fair amount of mate­r­ial.
In a pre­vi­ous post on tag clouds, I sug­gested that the great value of first gen­er­a­tion tag clouds is their abil­ity to make con­cepts and meta­data — seman­tic fields — broadly acces­si­ble and easy to under­stand and work with through visu­al­iza­tion. I believe the shift in the bal­ance of roles and value from first to sec­ond gen­er­a­tion reflects nat­ural growth in cloud usage and aware­ness, and builds on the two major trends of tag cloud evo­lu­tion: enhanced visu­al­iza­tion and func­tion­al­ity for work­ing with clouds, and pro­vi­sion of exten­sive con­tex­tual infor­ma­tion to accom­pany tag clouds.
Together, these two growth paths allow cloud con­sumers to fol­low the indi­vid­ual chains of under­stand­ing that inter­sect at con­nected clouds, and bet­ter achieve their goals within the infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment and out­side. Fun­da­men­tally, I believe the key dis­tinc­tions between first and sec­ond gen­er­a­tion clouds will come from the way that clouds func­tion simul­ta­ne­ously as visu­al­iza­tions and nav­i­ga­tion mech­a­nisms, and what they allow nav­i­ga­tion of — land­scapes of mean­ing that are rich in seman­tic con­tent of high value.
For exam­ples of both direc­tions of tag cloud evo­lu­tion com­ing together to sup­port nav­i­ga­tion of seman­tic land­scapes, we can look at some of the new fea­tures del.icio.us has released in the past few months. I’ve col­lected three ver­sions of the infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture of the stan­dard del.icio.us URL details page from the past seven months as an exam­ple of evo­lu­tion hap­pen­ing right now.
The first ver­sion (screen­shot and break­down in Fig­ure 1) shows the URL details page some­time before August 15th, 2005, when it appeared on Matt McAlister’s blog.
Fig­ure 1: Del.icio.us URL Page — August 2005

The lay­out or infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture is fairly sim­ple, offer­ing a list of the com­mon tags for the url / focus, a sum­mary of the post­ing his­tory, and a more detailed list­ing of the post­ing his­tory that lists the dates and tag­gers who book­marked the item, as well as the tags used for book­mark­ing. There’s no cloud style visu­al­iza­tion of the tags attached to this sin­gle focus avail­able: at this time, del.icio.us offered a ren­dered tag cloud visu­al­iza­tion at the aggre­gate level for the whole envi­ron­ment.
Envi­ron­ment and sys­tem design­ers know very well that as the scope and com­plex­ity of an envi­ron­ment increase — in this case, the num­ber of tag­gers, focuses, and tags, plus their cumu­la­tive his­to­ries — it becomes more impor­tant for peo­ple to be explic­itly aware of the con­text of any item in order to under­stand it prop­erly. Explicit con­text becomes more impor­tant because they can rely less and less on implicit con­text or assump­tions about con­text based on the uni­ver­sal aspects of the envi­ron­ment. This is how cloud con­sumers’ needs for clearly vis­i­ble and acces­si­ble chains of under­stand­ing dri­ves the fea­tures and capa­bil­i­ties of tag clouds. Later ver­sions of this page addresses these needs in dif­fer­ing ways, with dif­fer­ing lev­els of suc­cess.
Fig­ure 2 shows a more recent ver­sion of the del.licio.us his­tory for the Ma.gnolia.com ser­vice. This screen­shot taken about ten days ago in early March, while I was work­ing on a draft of this post.
Fig­ure 2: Del.icio.us URL Page — Early March 2006

Key changes from the first ver­sion in August to this sec­ond ver­sion include:

  1. Chang­ing visu­al­iza­tion of the Com­mon Tags block to a cloud style rendering
  2. Remov­ing the indi­vid­ual tags cho­sen by each tag­ger from the Post­ing His­tory block
  3. The addi­tion of a large and promi­nent block of space devoted to “User Notes”
  4. Mov­ing the Post­ing His­tory block to the right column
  5. Chang­ing visu­al­iza­tion of the Post­ing His­tory block to a proto-cloud style rendering

The most impor­tant change in this sec­ond ver­sion is the removal of the indi­vid­ual sets of tags from the Post­ing His­tory. Sep­a­rat­ing the tags applied to the focus from asso­ci­a­ton with the indi­vid­ual tag­gers that chose them strips them of an impor­tant layer of con­text. Remov­ing the nec­es­sary con­text for the tag cloud breaks the chain of under­stand­ing (Fig­ure 3) link­ing tag­gers and cloud con­sumers, and obscures or increases the costs of the social con­cep­tual exchange that is the basic value of del.icio.us to its many users. In this ver­sion, cloud con­sumers con­sumers read­ing the URL details page can only find spe­cific tag­gers based on the con­cepts they’ve matched with this focus by vis­it­ing or nav­i­gat­ing to each indi­vid­ual tag­gers’ area within the larger del.icio.us envi­ron­ment one at a time.
Fig­ure 3: Chain of Under­stand­ing
The switch to ren­der­ing the Com­mon Tags block as a tag cloud is also impor­tant, as an indi­ca­tor of the con­sis­tent spread of clouds to visu­al­ize seman­tic fields, and their grow­ing role as nav­i­ga­tion tools within the larger land­scape.
The User Notes are a good exam­ple of an attempt to pro­vide addi­tional con­tex­tual infor­ma­tion with (poten­tially) high value. User Notes are cre­ated by users exclu­sively for the pur­pose of pro­vid­ing con­text. The other forms of con­text shown in the new lay­out — the Post­ing His­tory, Related Items — serve a con­tex­tual func­tion, but are not cre­ated directly by users with this goal in mind. The dif­fer­ence between the two pur­poses for these items undoubt­edly influ­ences the way that peo­ple cre­ate them, and what they cre­ate: it’s a ques­tion that more detailed inves­ti­ga­tions of tag­ging prac­tices will surely exam­ine.
The third ver­sion of the same URL his­tory page, shown in Fig­ure 4, was released very shortly after the sec­ond, prov­ing tag cloud evo­lu­tion is hap­pen­ing so quickly as to be dif­fi­cult to track delib­er­ately on a broad scale.
Fig­ure 4: Del.icio.us URL Page — March 2006 #2

This ver­sion changes the con­tent and lay­out of the Post­ing His­tory block, restor­ing the com­bined dis­play of indi­vid­ual tag­gers who tagged the URL, with the tags they applied to it, in the order in which they tagged the URL for the first time.
The third ver­sion makes two marked improve­ments over the first and sec­ond versions:

  1. Pre­sen­ta­tion of the indi­vid­ual chains of under­stand­ing that inter­sect with this focus / cloud in nav­i­ga­ble form, to increase aware­ness of the con­text for this item and allow users to retrace these paths to their origins
  2. Pre­sen­ta­tion of indi­vid­ual tag­gers’ flat­tened clouds that inter­sect this focus as nav­i­ga­tion mech­a­nisms for mov­ing from the cur­rent focus to else­where within the larger landscape

These three dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the del.icio.us URL details page show that the amount and type of con­tex­tual infor­ma­tion accom­pa­ny­ing a sin­gle focus is increas­ing, and that the num­ber of con­crete nav­i­ga­ble con­nec­tions to the larger seman­tic land­scape of which the focus is one ele­ment also increas­ing
Over­all, it’s clear that clouds are quickly emerg­ing as nav­i­ga­tion tools for com­plex land­scapes of mean­ing, and that cloud con­text has and will con­tinue to become more impor­tant for cloud cre­ation and use.
And so before dis­cussing the con­text nece­sary for clouds and the role of clouds as nav­i­ga­tion aids in more detail, it will be help­ful to get an overview of land­scapes of mean­ing, and how they arise.
Land­scapes of Mean­ing
A land­scape of mean­ing is a densely inter­con­nected, highly valu­able, exten­sive infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment rich in seman­tic con­tent that is cre­ated by com­mu­ni­ties of tag­gers who build con­nected tag clouds. In the early land­scapes of mean­ing emerg­ing now, a con­nec­tion between clouds can be a com­mon tag, tag­ger, or focus: any one of the three legs of the Tag­ging Tri­an­gle required for a tag cloud (more on this below). Because tag clouds visu­al­ize seman­tic fields, con­nected tag clouds visu­al­ize and offer access to con­nected seman­tic fields, serv­ing as bridges between the indi­vid­ual accu­mu­la­tions of mean­ing each cloud con­tains.
Con­nect­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of indi­vid­u­ally cre­ated clouds and fields, as del.icio.us has enabled social book­mark­ers to do by pro­vid­ing nec­es­sary tools and infra­struc­ture, cre­ates a very large infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment whose ter­rain or geog­ra­phy is com­posed of seman­tic infor­ma­tion. Such a seman­tic land­scape is a land­scape con­structed or made up of mean­ing. It is an infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment that allows peo­ple to share con­cepts or for social pur­poses of all kinds, while sup­ported with visu­al­iza­tion, con­tex­tual infor­ma­tion, func­tion­al­ity, and far-ranging nav­i­ga­tion capa­bil­i­ties.
The flickr Land­scape
flickr is a good exam­ple of a land­scape of mean­ing that we can under­stand as a seman­tic land­scape. In a pre­vi­ous post on tag clouds, I con­sid­ered the flickr all time most pop­u­lar tags cloud (shown in Fig­ure 5) in light of the basic struc­ture of clouds:
“The flickr style tag cloud is …a visu­al­iza­tion of many tag sep­a­rate clouds aggre­gated together. …the flickr tag cloud is the visu­al­iza­tion of the cumu­la­tive seman­tic field accreted around many dif­fer­ent focuses, by many peo­ple. …the flickr tag cloud func­tions as a visu­al­iza­tion of a seman­tic land­scape built up from all asso­ci­ated con­cepts cho­sen from the com­bined per­spec­tives of many sep­a­rate tag­gers.”
Fig­ure 5: The flickr All Time Most Pop­u­lar Tags Cloud

From our ear­lier look at the struc­ture of first gen­er­a­tion tag clouds we know a tag cloud visu­al­izes a seman­tic field made up of con­cepts referred to by labels which are applied as tags to a focus of some sort by tag­gers.
Based on our under­stand­ing of the struc­ture of a tag cloud as hav­ing a sin­gle focus, the flickr cloud shows some­thing dif­fer­ent because it includes many focuses. The flickr all time most pop­u­lar tags cloud com­bines all the indi­vid­ual tag clouds around all the indi­vid­ual pho­tos in flickr into a sin­gle visu­al­iza­tion, as Fig­ure 6 shows.
Fig­ure 6: The flickr Land­scape of Mean­ing

This means the flickr all time most pop­u­lar tags cloud is in fact a visu­al­iza­tion of the com­bined seman­tic fields behind each of those indi­vid­ual clouds. It’s quite a bit big­ger in scope than a tra­di­tional sin­gle focus cloud. Because the scope is so large, the amount of mean­ing it sum­ma­rizes and con­veys is tremen­dous. The all time most pop­u­lar tags cloud is in fact a his­toric win­dow on the cur­rent and his­tor­i­cal state of the seman­tic land­scape of flickr as a whole.
This is where con­text becomes crit­i­cal to the proper under­stand­ing of a tag cloud. The cloud title “All time most pop­u­lar tags” sets the con­text for this tag cloud, within the bound­aries of the larger land­scape envi­ron­ment defined and com­mu­ni­cated by flickr’s user epx­e­ri­ence. With­out this title, the cloud is mean­ing­less despite the large and com­plex seman­tic land­scape — all of the infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment of flickr — it visu­al­izes so effec­tively, because cloud con­sumers can­not retrace a com­plete chain of under­stand­ing to cor­rectly iden­tify the cloud’s ori­gin.
flickr — 1st Gen­er­a­tion Land­scape Nav­i­ga­tion
The flickr cloud is a pow­er­ful nav­i­ga­tion mech­a­nism for quickly and eas­ily mov­ing about within the land­scape of mean­ing built up by all those thou­sands and thou­sands of indi­vid­ual clouds. Still, because it is a first gen­er­a­tion cloud, we can­not directly fol­low any of the many indi­vid­ual chains of under­stand­ing con­nect­ing this cloud’s tags back to spe­cific tag­gers, or the con­cepts they asso­ciate with spe­cific pho­tos or focuses. In this visu­al­iza­tion, the group’s under­stand­ing of mean­ing is more impor­tant than any individual’s under­stand­ing. And so the flickr cloud does not yet allow us com­pre­hen­sive nav­i­ga­tion of the under­ly­ing seman­tic land­scape illus­trated in Fig­ure 6 (chains of under­stand­ing sug­gested in light green). The flickr cloud also remains a first gen­er­a­tion tag cloud because users can­not con­trol its con­text.
Fig­ure 7: A Seman­tic Land­scape

Even so, these nav­i­ga­tional and con­tex­tual needs will help iden­tify the way that users rely on clouds to work in land­scapes of mean­ing.
Growth of Land­scapes
Land­scapes of mean­ing like flickr, del.icio.us, or the bur­geon­ing num­ber of social seman­tic busi­ness ven­tures debut­ing as I write — typ­i­cally grow from the bot­tom up, emerg­ing as dozens or thou­sands of indi­vid­ual tag clouds cre­ated for dif­fer­ent rea­sons by dif­fer­ent tag­gers coin­ci­den­tally or delib­er­ately inter­con­nect and over­lap, all of this hap­pen­ing through a vari­ety of social mech­a­nisms. Tag­gers typ­i­cally cre­ate con­nected or over­lap­ping tag clouds one at a time, adding tags, focuses, and tag­gers (by cre­at­ing new accounts) in the ad hoc fash­ion of open net­works and archi­tec­tures. But first we should look at the Tag­ging Tri­an­gle to under­stand the most basic ele­ments of a tag cloud.
The Tag­ging Tri­an­gle
To make a tag cloud, you have to have three ele­ments: a focus, a tag­ger, and a(t least one) tag. I call this the Tag­ging Tri­an­gle, illus­trated in Fig­ure 8. In the most com­mon ren­der­ings of famil­iar tag clouds, one or two of these ele­ments are often implied but not shown: yet all three are always present.
This illus­tra­tion shows a cloud of labels, not tags, because a ren­dered cloud is really a list of labels. The labels shown in most first gen­er­a­tion clouds are often tags, but struc­turally they could also be a set of names for tag­gers, as in the del.icio.us post­ing his­tory block proto-cloud we saw above, or a set of focuses as in the ‘Inverted Cloud’ I sug­gested.
Fig­ure 8: The Tag­ging Tri­an­gle
An Exam­ple Land­scape
A sim­ple exam­ple of the growth of seman­tic land­scapes leads nat­u­rally to the dis­cus­sion of spe­cific ways that tag clouds will enable nav­i­ga­tion within large land­scapes of mean­ing.
Fig­ure 9 shows the tag cloud accreted around a sin­gle focus. This cloud includes some of the tags that Tag­ger 1 has used in total across all the tag clouds she’s cre­ated (those other clouds aren’t shown). We’ll assume that she’s cre­ated other clouds for other focuses.
Fig­ure 9: A Sin­gle Tag Cloud

When a sec­ond per­son, Tag­ger 2, tags that same focus (again with a sub­set of the total set of all his tags), and some of those tags are the same as those used for this focus by Tag­ger 1, their indi­vid­ual tag clouds for this focus (shown by the dashed line in the cumu­la­tive tag cloud) con­nect via the com­mon tags, and the cumu­la­tive cloud grows. If any of the tags from their total sets are the same, but are not used for this focus, they form another con­nec­tion between the two tag­gers. Fig­ure 10 shows two indi­vid­ual clouds con­nected in both these ways.
Fig­ure 10: Two Con­nected Clouds

When a third tag­ger adds a third cloud with com­mon tags and unique tags around the same focus, the cumu­la­tive cloud grows, and the num­ber of both kinds of con­nec­tions between tags and tag­gers grows. Fig­ure 11 shows three con­nected clouds.
Fig­ure 11: Con­nected Clouds

Every tag cloud visu­al­izes a seman­tic field, and so the result of this bot­tom up growth is a series of inter­linked seman­tic fields cen­tered around a com­mon focus, as Fig­ure 12 shows. Since seman­tic fields are made of con­cepts, linked fields result in linked con­cepts.
Fig­ure 12: Con­nected Seman­tic Fields

The total num­ber and the vari­ety of kinds of inter­con­nec­tions amongst these three tag­gers, their tags, and a sin­gle focus is remark­able. As this sim­ple exam­ple shows, the total num­ber and den­sity of con­nec­tions link­ing even a mod­er­ate size pop­u­la­tion of tag­gers, tags, and focuses could quickly become very large. This increased scale dri­ves qual­i­ta­tive and quan­ti­ta­tive topol­ogy changes in the net­work that per­mit a land­scape of mean­ing to emerge from con­nected seman­tic fields.
Land­scapes And Depth
The accu­mu­la­tion of con­nec­tions and con­cepts cre­ates a land­scape of mean­ing with real depth; but it’s the depth of a land­scape that dri­ves its value. For this dis­cus­sion, I’m defin­ing depth loosely as the amount of seman­tic infor­ma­tion or the den­sity of the seman­tic field either across the whole land­scape, or at a cho­sen point.
Value of course is a very sub­jec­tive judge­ment. In par­tic­i­pa­tory economies like that of del.icio.us, the value to indi­vid­ual users is pre­dom­i­nantly one of loosely struc­tured seman­tic exchange based on accu­mu­la­tion of col­lec­tive value through shared indi­vid­ual efforts. From a busi­ness view­point, a group of investors and yahoo as a buyer saw con­sid­er­able value in the emer­gent land­scape and / or other kinds of assets
To make the idea of depth a bit clearer, Fig­ure 13 illus­trates two views of a seman­tic land­scape built up by the over­lap of tag clouds. The aer­ial view shows the con­tents, dis­tri­b­u­tion, and over­lap of a num­ber of tag clouds around a set of focuses. The hori­zon view shows the depth of the seman­tic field for each focus, based on the amount of over­lap or con­nec­tion between the cloud around that focus and all the other clouds.
Fig­ure 13: Seman­tic Land­scape Depth Views

Of course this is only a con­cep­tual way of show­ing the cumu­la­tive seman­tic infor­ma­tion that makes up a land­scape of mean­ing, so it does not address the rel­a­tive value of this infor­ma­tion. Plainly some indi­ca­tion of the qual­ity of the seman­tic infor­ma­tion in a land­scape is crit­i­cal impor­tant to mea­sure­ments of both depth and value. Met­rics for qual­ity could come from a com­bi­na­tion of assess­ment of the diver­sity and gran­u­lar­ity of the tag pop­u­la­tion for the focus, bench­marks for the domain of the focus and tag­gers (health­care indus­try), and an esti­mate on the matu­rity of the domain, the focus, and the tag clouds in the seman­tic land­scape.
Look­ing ahead, it’s likely that accepted met­rics for defin­ing and describ­ing the depth, value, and char­ac­ter­is­tics of seman­tic fields and land­scapes will emerge as new com­bi­na­tions of some of the mea­sure­ments used now in the realms of cog­ni­tive lin­guis­tics, set the­ory, sys­tem the­ory, topol­ogy, infor­ma­tion the­ory, and quite a few other dis­ci­plines besides.
In Part Two
The sec­ond post in this series of two will fol­low sev­eral of the top­ics intro­duced here to con­clu­sion, as well as cover some new top­ics, including:

  • How chains of under­stand­ing shape needs for cloud con­text and nav­i­ga­tion paths
  • How the tag­ging tri­an­gle will define nav­i­ga­tion within land­scapes of meaning
  • The emer­gence of strat­i­fi­ca­tion in land­scapes of meaning
  • The idea that clouds and land­scapes have a shape which con­veys mean­ing and value
  • The kinds of con­tex­tual infor­ma­tion and con­trols nec­es­sary for nav­i­ga­tion and social exchanges

Watch­ing Nav­i­ga­tion Fol­low Chains of Under­stand­ing
I’ll close with a screen­cast put together by Jon Udell that cap­tures a wide rang­ing nav­i­ga­tion path through the del.icio.us landscape.

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