Shirky on “Ontology is overrated”

I’ve had this article in my “must post to blog someday” for quite a while. It is a long, thoughtful look on where Ontologies work and where they don’t.

I have a sense that the world of “managing large amounts of information to the benefit of lots of people” is rapidly changing. There are some traditional approaches which people are trying to implement in the ELN world which aren’t getting much leverage, and there are some newer (whackier) approaches coming from the Internet world which might prove to be very powerful in certain ELN applications.

What I do know is that users instinctively rebel against categorising their “stuff” too finely, so a lot of well-intentioned systems aren’t working as intended – not because they’re badly implemented, but because users don’t think like that (The “Toaster” problem rears it’s ugly head). At the same time, simple collaborative tools like del.icio.us and clones, together with the “Tagging” meme that’s going around at the moment, seem to be effortlessly sorting out something as messy as the Internet.

If you want to know more about del.icio.us then this screencast is a great introduction and is what gave me my “Ah hah!” moment.

Interestingly, I had written this entry and just went to John Udell’s blog to find the correct link to the screencast. Turns out his most recent entry is about Connotea, a del.icio.us-like service for the scientific community.

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