August 07, 2005

Clay Shirky's Viewpoints are Overrated

So, I finally got around to reading Clay Shirky's Ontology is Overrated essay. I'd been avoiding it for months, knowing I was going to want to take some time with it, and that I was going to want to respond.

Clay has assumed the role of an ideologue. He says enough that is obviously true to keep you nodding, and then slips in bold statements predicated on no actual facts. He tells people what they want to hear, setting up a false dichotomy between some mythical group of elite ontologists and the rag-tag uprising of mass categorization.

Long ago, Gene did an admirable job of poking at Clay's ideological bent. He commented that he was not concerned with the technical errors and omissions, and thought he might get to them in later posts. He hasn't yet, so I'm going to take a stab. Because I think it's important to show that the emperor has no hair... er, I mean, clothes.

Tags as Identity, Tags as Attribute

Clay has a tendency to use examples of tags-as-identity. So, he dismisses the value of the thesaurus, saying that you don't want to connect terms like "cinema," "film," and "movie," because "The movie people don't want to hang out with the cinema people."

OK. But, let's say I'm a scientist. Doing research on Avian Flu. And I go to Connotea, "free online reference management service for scientists". If I look in "Avian Flu," I will actually miss a vast number of articles of potential interest. Because, as this list shows, people are using a variety of terms for what they undoubtedly would consider the same thing:


Tags are rarely a matter of identity. Of the "cinema" people against the "movie" people. Of the "queer", "gay", "homosexual". Yes, that does happen occasionally, and yes, in those few instances, you shouldn't assume synonymity. But if I'm trying to understand the breadth of issues around the avian flu, you *better* point me to all the pertinent resources.

Classification Comes In More Than One Flavor

One of Clay's greatest fallacies is his conflation of hierarchy, general classification, library classification, and the-book-on-the-shelf. In poking fun at the Library of Congress' outdated categorization schemes, he uses the following example:
D: History (general)
DA: Great Britain
DB: Austria
DC: France
DD: Germany
DE: Mediterranean
DF: Greece
DG: Italy
DH: Low Countries
DJ: Netherlands
DK: Former Soviet Union
DL: Scandinavia
DP: Iberian Peninsula
DQ: Switzerland
DR: Balkan Peninsula
DS: Asia
DT: Africa
DU: Oceania
DX: Gypsies

Isn't it funny that "Greece" is considered to be at the same level as all of "Asia" and "Africa"?! Ha ha!

The problem is, the top-level categorization scheme actually means very little in actual use of the Library of Congress' classifications. What does matter is something that Clay only gives a throwaway comment to much later on. When he discusses symbolic links on Yahoo (where they can place "Books and Literature" in Entertainment though it primarily "belongs" in Humanities), he gives this aside: "The Library of Congress has something similar in its second-order categorization -- "This book is mainly about the Balkans, but it's also about art, or it's mainly about art, but it's also about the Balkans." Most hierarchical attempts to subdivide the world use some system like this."

Actually, the "second-order categorization" he's referring to are the LOC's Subject Headings. Which, in our digital world, are actually what people *use* when trying to find books. So, if I'm doing research on the history of environmental degradation caused by the development of the city of San Francisco, I don't need to figure out some single primary concept ("history," "environment", "san francisco") and hope for the best. As this listing of Gray Brechin's "Imperial San Francisco" demonstrates, I could find this book through any number of subjects...


So, yes, while books have One True Call Number to determine where it is placed on the shelf, they're also rife with metadata (author, title, subject) that allows us to uncover the book through a variety of means.

And Clay does classifiers a big disservice by suggesting they all assume The Shelf, which in turn suggests they all assume hierarchy. In doing so, he neglects faceted classification, which recognized long ago that there is no shelf. ("There is no spoon.")

Okay, I *will* talk about ideology

Clay's whole argument predicates a black-and-white distinction between evil hierarchy on one side and good tags on the other... And while Clay is right to question hierarchy, and, particularly, Yahoo's less-than-optimal use of it, he neglects to distinguish truly useful forms of professionally-created classification and categorization, which undermines his argument. (He continues to set tags against folders-and-hierarchies, as if there are no other ways of classifying information. Sigh.)

Where Clay demonstrates that his is a cause of ideology, not reason, is here:

"The problem is, because the cataloguers assume their classification should have force on the world, they underestimate the difficulty of understanding what users are thinking, and they overestimate the amount to which users will agree, either with one another or with the catalogers, about the best way to categorize. They also underestimate the loss from erasing difference of expression, and they overestimate loss from the lack of a thesaurus."
Has he ever talked to a cataloguer? This statement suggests not. He sets up cataloguers as some faceless elite trying to enforce their will on the world. And he then makes a series of claims ("underestimate" this, "overestimate" that) that have no evidence whatsoever. They are convenient hypotheses, but nothing more.

And this ideology leads to this utterly nonsensical claim:

"With a multiplicity of points of view the question isn't "Is everyone tagging any given link 'correctly'", but rather "Is anyone tagging it the way I do?" As long as at least one other person tags something they way you would, you'll find it -- using a thesaurus to force everyone's tags into tighter synchrony would actually worsen the noise you'll get with your signal. If there is no shelf, then even imagining that there is one right way to organize things is an error.

If all I'm doing is trying to find people who tag things the way I do, my exposure to the world of information is going to be awfully awfully constrained. If I'm a scientist, and I tag an article "bird flu," well, yes, I might find all the other articles labelled "bird flu," but I won't find any labelled "avian flu." In this case, a thesaurus (well, a synonym ring, but no mind) will increase the quality of the signal. And, contrary to Clay's coda in that claim, you can utilize thesauri and not believe there is one right way to organize things. In fact, a strong, robust thesaurus works PRECISELY BECAUSE there is not one right way to organize things.

Where I compare Clay to Jakob Nielsen, and yes, irony intended

Clay has pretty much decided to be to tagging what Jakob Nielsen is to usability. Vocal, bombastic, attention-getting, and frequently specious. Read his words carefully, because while his rhetoric might induce a lot of head-nodding, his arguments have a tendency to fall apart.

Look. I love tags. I love classifications. (I pretty much loathe hierarchy). All of these things will be made better when they work in concert. Not when they're set apart.

But Wait, There's More!

And hey, just for reading this far, here are two other places where Clay is demonstrably, well, if not wrong, misguided. In his discussion of Dresden and East Germany, he states, "It is much easier for a country to disappear than for a city to disappear, so when you're saying that the small thing is contained by the large thing, you're actually mixing radically different kinds of entities." Um. The former cities of Venice, Malibu, Hollywood, Brooklyn and others that have been swallowed up by neighboring growing cities might beg to differ. Countries and cities are similarly fictions (or not). Frankly, I don't know why he brings up this "example" in the first place.

The other is in this passage: "Let's say I need every Web page with the word "obstreperous" and "Minnesota" in it. You can't ask a cataloguer in advance to say "Well, that's going to be a useful category, we should encode that in advance." Instead, what the cataloguer is going to say is, "Obstreperous plus Minnesota! Forget it, we're not going to optimize for one-offs like that."" First we have to set aside the fact that Clay is now talking about free-text search, and not tagging. But, let's say he is talking about tagging. The system he's discussing already exists. It's called "postcoordinate indexing," and I mentioned it in a prior folksonomy post of mine.

I guess that's another thing that's really bugging me. Clay acting as if he's discovered unchartered territory, when, really, it's been well-trod upon for awhile.

I leave you with this. When considering purchasing an alarm system for my house, I Googled "home security." The amount of noise in those results is startling, because "home" and "security" can mean so many different things. However, using Yahoo!s Directory, I can find all manner of highly relevant items.

Posted by peterme at 07:44 PM | Comments (15)

Keeping Your Ship Afloat As The Tide Recedes

Today's Chronicle prints an in-depth interview with Chip Conley, the CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, proprietors of a bunch of boutique hotels in San Francisco and its environs.

Chip successfully navigated his company through the worst hotel market in San Francisco since World War II -- and did so without closures and layoffs. SF's hotel industry continues to struggle through... interesting times. Union walkouts at 14 hotels have given San Francisco a shaky rep in the conventions-and-conferences biz, internet consolidators cut deep into margins, and the difficulty for international travelers to visit the US after 9/11 continues to hurt the tourist economy.

A choice bit:

Q: How did you survive that downturn?

A: We were probably more vulnerable than any other hotel company in the Bay Area because all of our hotels, until four months ago, were just in the Bay Area, and I don't have deep pockets. We were pretty vulnerable also because our average hotel is a three-star hotel. As the four and five stars start to drop prices, the price umbrella drops, and what happens to those guys at the bottom whose competitive advantage is price?

Fortunately, our competitive advantage was not just price. Because each of our hotels is a boutique hotel that has a very distinct market. There's a statistic out there called the Star Report. The Star Report says if the average is 100, what are you generating on a per-room basis compared to your competitors? In 2001, our average hotel was doing 103. By 2004, we were doing 122. We had no hotel defaults, no bankruptcies. In fact, we have taken over hotels from other hotels in town that had defaults.

I think the main reason we succeeded is because we got exceptionally focused. Instead of doing some mass layoffs, I didn't take a salary for four years. Our top executives took a 10 percent pay cut for almost three years. We had a pay freeze for all salaried employees. It was what we needed to do because we didn't want to kill our culture in the process of suffering through what was our Great Depression.

He also mentions that the Joie de Vivre hotel which receives the highest customer satisfaction scores is a union hotel.

In terms of how not to get caught up in price wars:

But what we decided to do beyond that is we said, "Let's not just match price. Let's create value. And we should create a bunch of content on our Web site also about the Bay Area.'' So someone could just use our Web site as a portal. Plus we also created a fun idea called the Golden Gate Greeter Program.

Anybody who's staying in one of our hotels can choose to get a two- to four-hour free tour with one of our Golden Gate Greeters. We have 50 people who volunteered to actually take people on a tour of the city based upon their interests. And people love it because it creates a connection, an emotional connection.

And in terms of maintaining corporate culture when growing:

A: It is hard. Most companies lose their culture as they grow. But what Southwest Airlines taught us is that it's all about empowering employees at the lowest level of the company as much as possible.

Seven years ago, we bought the Kabuki Hot Springs and Spa in Japantown. Our employees get free communal bathing and 50 percent off on spa treatment. All of our employees get to stay in our hotels for free. Anyone who is a salaried employee gets one month paid sabbatical every three years. And we didn't walk away from it during the downturn.

I'm sure the "design thinking" crowd would love to claim Chip as one of theirs... He's daring, innovative, clever, and, clearly, has a design sensibility. But really, what he's doing, through and through, simply seems to be good business. Heaps of sweat equity. Good treatment of his most important resource -- his employees. Stick-to-it-iveness. And some bright ideas.

If you've made it this far in this post, you'll likely be interested in this PDF booklet that JDV makes available: "The Secrets to Boutique Success: How Boutique Hotels Are Revolutionizing the Hospitality Industry" It's actually a good read no matter what you're industry, discussing everything from finance to management to brand-building and beyond.

Posted by peterme at 12:33 PM | Comments (2)


See Me Travel
December 2006
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004
December 2003
November 2003
October 2003
September 2003
August 2003
July 2003
June 2003
May 2003
April 2003
March 2003
Archives from June 13, 2001 to January 2003
Archives from before June 13, 2001
Recent Entries
Clay Shirky's Viewpoints are Overrated
Keeping Your Ship Afloat As The Tide Recedes
Subscribe to my feed:
Powered by
Movable Type 3.2