December 17, 2004

Would We Create Hierarchies in a Computing Age?

Lou has posted my question:

Is hierarchy a means to classify and structure based on the tools available at the time (our minds)? Would we have structured things differently if we had computers from the beginning?

Hierarchy is a relatively easy means of classifying information, but only if people are familiar with the culture and topic of the item. We know there are problems with hierarchy and classification across disciplines and cultures and we know that items have many more attributes that which provide a means of classification. Think classification of animals, is it fish, mammal, reptile, etc.? It is a dolphin. Well what type of dolphin, as there are some that are mammal and some that are fish? Knowing that the dolphin swims in water does not help the matter at all in this case. It all depends on the context and the purpose.

Hierarchy and classification work well in limited domains. In the wild things are more difficult. On the web when we are building a site we often try to set hierarchies based on the intended or expected users of the information. But the web is open to anybody and outside the site anybody can link to any thing they wish that is on the web and addressable. The naming for the hyperlink can be whatever helps the person creating the link understand what that link is pointing to. This is the initial folksonomy, hyperlinks. Google was smart in using the link names in their algorithm for helping people find information they are seeking. Yes, people can disrupt the system with Googlebombing, but the it just takes a slightly smarter tool to get around these problems.

You see hierarchies are simple means of structuring information, but the world is not as neat nor simple. Things are far more complex and each person has their own derived means of structuring information in their memory that works for them. Some have been enculturated with scientific naming conventions, while others have not.

I have spent the last few years watching users of a site not understand some of the hierarchies developed as there are more than the one or two user-types that have found use in the information being provided. They can get to the information from search, but are lost in the hierarchies as the structure is foreign to them.

It is from this context that I asked the question. We are seeing new tools that allow for regular people to tag information objects with terms that these people would use to describe the object. We see tools that can help make sense of these tags in a manner that gets other people to information that is helpful to them. These folksonomy tools, like Flickr,, and Google (search and Gmail) provide the means to tame the whole in a manner that is addressable across cultures (including nationalities and language) and disciplines. This breadth is not easily achievable by hierarchies.

So looking back, would we build hierarchies given today's tools? Knowing the world is very complex and diverse do simple hierarchies make sense?


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