Social bookmarking: what’s it all about?

The quick and dirty definition of social bookmarking, courtesy of Educause Learning Initiative:

Social bookmarking is the practice of saving bookmarks to
public Web site and “tagging” them with keywords.

While bookmarking (in the Web world, anyway) refers to saving a link that you want to return to by bookmarking it on your home computer, social bookmarking is about sharing favourite links. Social bookmarking is as much about tagging, if not more, than just saving and sharing links, and it doesn’t end with the person who saved the link in the first place. As users sift through and discover links from other users, they can add tags too.

How is this working in libraries? In various ways, on either of the reference desk.

Librarians can use social bookmarking sites like Delicious for organizing their own web reference tools, or collecting sites targeted towards specific users groups and having patrons contribute to the collection. This page illustrates all of the sites that have been tagged with the word “webcomic” at the Nashville Public Library’s Delicious site.

At The University of Pennsylvania Library , tags associated with library items form a word cloud, with the most popular tags appearing largest. Visitors to the site can click on any tag and be linked to all of the items associated with that tag. This is a far cry from the traditional way of searching library catalogues by subject searching. For one, the subjects are juxtaposed with titles and other useful information on the face of web sites and pages where patrons already are, and removes the need to go to the catalogue, choose a subject search and then think of words in your topic. For another, classification is no longer solely the domain of the cataloguer. Whereas librarians are classifying items according to authority systems, a user can just click on the topic that interests them and be taken to all of the items with that tag. It also allows for interactivity since users who have read a particular book are able to then go in and create tags they think are useful for future students. Tagging, in its most ideal form, takes advantage of the hive mind, the collective consciousness and shared wisdom of the community by tapping into and building upon individuals’ knowledge.

bees

Are many bees smarter than one bee? Depends on the bee. Wild bee hive, image by Carly & Art, courtesy Creative Commons.

But wait – “in its most ideal form”? That doesn’t sound ideal… Of course things are not so cut and dry.

Tagging, the folksonomy that it is, is just that: named by the folks. And according to Pew Research Centre, almost 30% of us have tagged Web content at some time or another. The good thing about it is that it is democratic and subverts more traditional, hierarchical and sometimes alienating, systems such as the Dewey Decimal System. The ease with which normal people can tag books, websites and products with meaningful labels means that information is accessible to more than just knowledge experts.The bad news is, tags put in by patrons can be uncontrolled, and have little to do with anything other than an utterly subjective interpretation of something’s “about-ness”. I mean, does that mean that we don’t need structured classification systems anymore?

For example, check out this example of customer tagging of Amazon.com of one of my favorite books, Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegleman. I’m not sure of the usefulness of the tags “Spring 2004”, “spouse”, or “stuff i lost” in defining or classifying this item.

The solution for libraries then seems to be to strike a balance between organizing information in a structured way that maintains a universal order, while allowing for interactivity and accessibility through methods like tagging. I think tagging’s usefulness comes into play when users interact with it; not only do they create their own tags and search others’ tags, but they get to know other taggers within sites that they like, and the information comes from that kind of interaction. It’s like getting a recommendation for a movie or book from someone: do you share that person’s taste? That makes all the difference in whether or not you will find their descriptions useful.

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