Organizing the Commons

My colleague, Gadi Ben-Yehuda, is deep into a discussion about using hashtags on Twitter and of strategies for broadcasting to certain audiences. His use of certain terms raised a few hackles, and he asked me to share my thoughts. Once I reviewed the conversation, I have to agree with the Tribe of the Raised Hackles.

In my view, Gadi is using the language and terms of control. Hashtags and other metadata, to me, fall in the same category as taxonomy. Once upon a time, we in the KM world appeared to have a singular faith that organizing content and messages within a common taxonomy would facilitate recovery and effective dissemination.

The problem with this approach is that it presumes you can establish relevance as the sender, and fails to consider the bias filters of the receiver (message decoding in Shannon Information Theory). In addition, the pre-categorizing of information for the receiver misses out on serendipity. When he reference one-to-many in his post, he is correct: but only for the first message. The value of SM for some is that the notion of an exchange, rather than a broadcast. This is not to say taxonomy is useless, it can be essential for interoperability across Agencies. The business reference architectures coming out of the OMB Line of Business research is an excellent example of establishing a common taxonomy across similar functions in disparate agencies. However, attempting to organize that which is designed as an anarchic form, strikes me as applying – inappropriately – the tools of control to what is a somewhat disintermediated forum. Not all attempts to organize are inappropriate, I should stipulate; but the notion that all messages should be categorized by the sender is – in my view.

Gadi speaks of adding structure to the medium, a medium that is fighting against existing structured channels for information flow. This is Shirky-esque; the notion that we are moving away from one-to-many broadcasts and towards a many-to-many construct. In one sense, Gadi is correct. Technically. When the Coast Guard uses the hashtag for #tsunami, they are speaking to people who have structured their feeds in such a way as to receive these efficiently.

However, this is only true for some. Others may note the preponderance of ‘tsunami’ in a word cloud, or search for the word if they hear snippet on the news. And while the USCG may have defined their audience as he notes, they cannot know who else may use the information.

The bottom line, at least for me (until Gadi responds): Attempts to structure what people need to know from your message rankle those who are angling for disintermediation in their communications and news. When he references one-to-many, Gadi is correct: but only for the first message. The value of SM is the notion of an exchange, an information commons, rather than a broadcast channel. Part of what hampers KM and information sharing (my soapbox) is the notion that we have to first structure what we are saying for the people we think we’re talking to. This leads to the enforcement of a document metaphor, rather than true sharing of granular information. Stop trying to answer a question you think your readers have, and just put it out there.

This is not to say organizing or tagging your content is always wrong – but it is wrong to claim you must always organize or tag your content. And this was Gadi’s original point. I think the salient question for those pondering this discusion are: Where do you spend your energies, and what design principles underlie your work?

One last thought: The driving notion when I was working (with a large team) on the DoD Information Sharing Strategy: We must be prepared to share information with unexpected partners, driven by unanticipated events. If that is the design principle, then pre-packaging, metadata, hashtags – all those actions that presume we know how our information will be used – become much less interesting.

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Alexander B. Howard

I’m glad you commented and linked to this post from Gadi’s post, John.

You’re teasing out some really interesting larger issues about how media are shifting from broadcast models to a networked mode whose characteristics we’re still exploring. They’re familiar from my experience with Crisis Commons, where the #SMEM hashtag includes an ongoing conversation about this area.

Hashtags, in general, are a fascinating subject in this context, since they were effectively introduced and adopted by the the users of the platform, as opposed to its creators. The people formerly known as the audience share on constantly shifting channels defined by them as well as by offline institutions that are accustomed to both setting the place, time and content of communications about themselves. When we navigate a series of user-generated channels, of “folksonomies” occupied by many different tribes of people who are self-organizing and affiliating, the communities we encounter have a say in defining their own channels for conversation.

Speaking to your latter point on tagging, my sense is that we need to keep findability, usability and discoverability in mind when we publish online now. It needs to be optimized for search engines (SEO) and social media (SMO) and be readable and indexable by both. That puts an increasing premium on both plain language and “spreadability” — is the message clear, short and tied to a links @name or meta data that give the reader a chain connection to context or origin. In that context, the design principles you describe include thinking about how and where your readers or network connections will find your content — and I suspect that’s a worthwhile thought process for any organization to undertake in its communication strategy.

Zach Tumin

#thingsthatlastedlongerthankimsmarriage – a great hashtag and perfect for its purposes – unless you want to search for “things that lasted longer than kims marriage,” which I never would. Tracking the twitter stream on debates – incredibly useful with hashtags and not even worth trying without. On the other (completely) unstructured hand @LewisShepherd is the master of the comedic, backhanded, dry wit hashtag – which has nothing to do with meta anything. Somewhere in between you want to find hashtags that organize what you think the community of like interest is using, so they can see you if they care. Its interesting watching things settle down around conference hashtags which can take some time and are invaluable for tracking the live tweeting out of #asd04q2012 or #xmuyrlvo2011. There are folks who use so many hashtags it makes their tweets #unreadable and seems as if they have some purpose other than the immediate tweet. And when you want to call yourself to the attention of intelligence divisions like the #NYPD’s, its always good to hashtag. Not that they wouldn’t find you simply by using the word Kelly, but hashtagging #NYPD is definitely a way to communicate – like, “I’m running out for coffee, guys, can I bring you something #NYPD?” All of which is to say sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t; sometimes its invaluable, sometimes its obtrusive. Like everything else, there times when its foolish not to hashtag, and times its makes no sense to.

John Bordeaux

Ah, the voice of reason has been roused from his slumber! You are correct, of course, everything in moderation. Following conferences, or debates (or live-tweeting the Oscars) – all much easier with hashtags. My colleague is in favor of as much structure as possible, where I see most information structures manage to impede discovery and sharing. This is my ‘tyranny of the document metaphor’ rant revisited. Thanks for the assist, sir. Although raising that most unstructured @LewisShepherd is a risk in any conversation…