Thomas Vander Wal recently offered an interesting discussion of how collective understanding and collaborative understanding differ, and why those differences are significant to social software, specifically in relation to folksonomy. Thomas’ concern is that many observers, and he points to the Wikipedia entry for folksonomy specifically, conflate collective understanding and collaborative understanding when considering folksonomy. He notes that, even though the two terms are similar, their differences manifest as distinct capabilities in social software.
…the term folksonomy was coined to separate tagging done in a collective manner (each individual’s contribution is held separate and collected or aggregated to build a fuller understanding, as the tagging is done by and from the individual reading the media for their own retrieval and is also share out with others). Collaborative tagging does take place and there is a need for it in certain situations, but it is not folksonomy.
First, Thomas makes a key point that remains unspoken when many people write about social software. Drawing from an earlier post by Jyri Engestrom, he points out that social software is largely about how people connect to objects to create sociality, i.e. social relationships. Jyri notes that the definition of a social network as a map of the relationships between individuals is the crux of a significant misunderstanding, since it is really a map of connections between individuals and objects of sociality. Skilful Minds noted something similar about the way museums use folksonomy.
Thomas builds nicely on Jyri’s point by indicating that, in the instance of collectives, individuals connect with an object by voicing or annotating their own individual take on it, by tagging it with their own characterizations. Collecting and aggregating those tagged connections results in folksonomy. However, the value of a collective understanding resulting from tags for urls in del.icio.us, for example, does not derive from its coherence around a common perspective. Rather, as Thomas notes,
The deep and rich value in tagging from a folksonomy perspective is created in the collective structure of tagging with the individual voices held separate around the understanding of the individual. The ability for anybody and everybody to tag and annotate and object and have their perspective captured is a very strong value for each individual who has hopes of refinding the object in their own perspective and context, as well as having others whom have similar understanding find the same object.
Alternatively, Thomas points out that collaborative understanding focuses on establishing a consensus point of view. In the collaborative approach, individuals aim to develop a common understanding that captures many perspectives. Thomas observes that wikis provide an example of the social objects resulting from collaborative social software. In addition, in his point of view, reaching a collaborative understanding flattens the depth of our relationship to the social object considered. I’d suggest a different adjective than flatten myself, something more like thickens. Let me try to explain why.
As I understand Thomas’ point, the properties of tags resulting from individuals attempting to keep track of a social object on the Web that they want to find again provides more information value to a folksonomy, and to those individuals, than the properties of tags done by you or me with someone else’s tagging in mind relative to the same object. It is more this is what I think about that than it is this is what I think about that compared to what you think about that. I’d suggest one of the ways to think about the distinctions Thomas has in mind is to consider them in terms of the distribution of ideas, or concepts, about the value of objects to both types of understanding, collective and collaborative.
The value of a collective understanding, such as folksonomy, is that it aggregates across what Chris Anderson calls The Long Tail with little to no bias towards the tall end, what Chris refers to as the short head, since people are not second guessing their concept of the object they tag; they aren’t “fitting” their tag to the understandings of others, or how others value the object. Now, admittedly, I am applying Chris’ approach in a slightly different way, but I think the use makes sense. For example, when I view Max Beckman’s Theater and offer to help others find it, the tags I offer come from my own sense of the value of the terms I would describe it with, rather than reviewing what others thought about Theater before I tag the object.
Alternatively, collaborative understanding, where the person doing the tagging does so while keeping the fit of their tags to the tags of others in mind, biases the aggregation process towards the short head of the long tail in relation to the value of the idea or concept of the object. For that reason, I’d suggest that collaborative understanding thickens rather than flattens the depth of our relationship to an object, i.e. its sociality.
The importance of the distinction, as Thomas clearly sees, is in its overall relationship and use by organizations, especially those attempting to implement Enterprise 2.0. I tend to view the issues involved along the lines offered in Keith Sawyer’s Group Genius, that successful innovative organizations develop ways of selecting good improvisations and spreading them throughout the organization. Supporting both collective understanding of objects and collaborative understanding of objects in the networks supported by social software is one way to accomplish the knowledge management task outlined by Sawyer.
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