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Vernacular Thesauri. Posted on 11/10/2001.

At the ASIS Annual, I attended Cynde Moya's presentation on "Subject Access to 'Pornography' for Serious Research Purposes." She's a budding sexologist with a library science degree, and has run into a number of problems trying to research the subject, with poorly maintained archives, studies that aren't specific about their materials, etc.

Her talk got me thinking about community-generated, or "vernacular" thesauri. One of the biggest problems in any information architecture is to utilize nomenclature that will be readily understood by your users. So often, terms are too ambiguous or jargon-y, and, in web terms, users won't be confident about what they'll get when they click a link.

Non-corporate porn sites have developed an amazingly robust and startlingly specific set of terms (I don't have to go into detail, do I?) that lead folks to exactly what they want (unless the page designer is being intentionally misleading... not that that ever happens). Anyone creating a porn taxonomy would be foolish not to draw from this wordstock.

In the session, I asked Cynde about such vernacular vocabularies and what she thought about them--she had heard of similar developments in the non-porn world, specifically on eBay, where the collector community is evolving its own terminologies.

It's become something of a hoary cliche to advise folks who want to innovate in Web design to look at what's happening with porn... Though here, the point isn't to try to emulate the design; instead, learn from how it's community operates, and wonder how such processes might relate to other, perhaps-less-prurient, realms.

4 comments so far. Add a comment.

Previous entry: "Putting our money where our mouths are."
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Like I mentioned in DC, I'd consider the porn (and eBay) vocabularies a dialect, not a thesaurus, in the strictest sense of both words. But that doesn't mean that dialect can't be made even more powerful by designing a CV or a relative index that takes advantage of the structure that's already there. There's probably a lot of money waiting for the person who develops a really killer porn thesaurus and uses it to power what would probably be the best-performing search engine ever invented... money from both the porn community and IR researchers. ;)
Posted by Xy @ 11/11/2001 12:06 PM PST [link to this comment]

Aren't these "vernacular vocabularies" easily found through the usual user research and conventional card sorts? I'm not sure what the point is here, other than porn sites aren't subjected to the same kinds of user research that other sites are.

Every IA worth their salt should already know that user research and research into users' own terminology is an essential part of developing a successful website.
Posted by vespa @ 11/11/2001 01:26 PM PST [link to this comment]

yes, any IA worth their salt already knows that user research is essential to developing successful websites. and yes, card sorting is one means of getting to this kind of understanding.

however, most thesauri are not created by information architects but rather by information and library scientists who come from a discipline with a history of believing that users muddle up your classification. (or at least look at vocabulary creation as a one-time, rigidly controlled task.) thus, there's something worthwhile in driving home how good an idea this is. organically grown, adaptable vocabularies and thesauri, mmm mmm good.

also, the "vernacular thesaurus" or "dialect-based relative index" (to paraphrase xy) is not a well-defined or understood problem. though applying user-centered methodology to a problem is always a good idea, it can be a bit like shooting arrows into the fog or at least like reinventing the wheel when applied to a domain that hasn't been named or studied with any degree of rigor.

for example, look at the process for designing standard controlled vocabularies and/or classifications schemes. ia's muddled their way through this process for a while doing some good but also making many mistakes before any best practices or standard methodologies appeared. (in that case, they realized that there was already an extensive body of research and practice in the library sciences). in the case of vernacular thesauri/relative indexing, now the issue has a name(s). let's start doing research and creating best practices!
Posted by tpodd @ 11/11/2001 05:04 PM PST [link to this comment]

Thinking about it a bit more, I guess my point of interest is less about how a practitioner can utilize community behavior to create a thesaurus, than it is my delight in seeing the power of an emergent thesaurus, an extremely robust and clear set of terms developed with no oversight at all.
Posted by peterme @ 11/11/2001 09:07 PM PST [link to this comment]

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