Top down authority

This was originally a handful of posts on my personal weblog @, but I thought I’d repost here to see what members think.

Poor old Dave Winer. Obviously times have been a little hard of late for the RSS and podcasting pioneer, who recently declared that he wants satire clearly labelled in podcasts after he discovered that one in particular was a prescripted comedy routine by a fake drag queen. It seems he was hoping for a Dogme 95 attitude to weblog audio broadcasts, and that “Madge” “broke the rules”.

Furthermore, when a journalistic roundup of 2004’s best podcasts didn’t include him, Winer left a “f*ck you” message on his weblog. Apparently for him it’s more about the glory and retaining control of what he sees as his baby than actually furthering society and human expression. This is a mistake; a tool of any kind is simply a facilitative mechanism. If you artificially constrict the things that can be done with it, particularly for egotistical reasons, you’re not going to succeed. People are smarter than that, as Winer discovered presumably to his horror: one comment read, “To the fathers of podcasting- wake up. Your revolution is about to start leaving you behind.”

And so onto tagging. HonorTags are a supposed way to flag content using a set of standard tags. To mark a weblog post as “journalism”, for example, you add the tag “HonorTagJournalism”. Daftest of all, if you’d rather leave your weblog post tag free, you’re supposed to use “UnTag”.

First of all, there are other, more programmatic ways to label content beyond tagging. But more importantly, this tagging system seeks to apply a kind of top down order on the tags people use – a sign of someone just not getting it. Tags are, first and foremost, a way to organise your own thoughts and data. You can sometimes then see what other people have listed under the same keywords – in fact that’s a large part of Elgg‘s reason d’etre – and it’s sometimes useful to bear that in mind when you’re categorising, but if you’re going to prescribe what tags people use you might as well be using a top down category index.

The whole point is that people can use the tags that suit them best, and that these systems allow people to express themselves, not adhere to some kind of code of what they will say and not say. The keywords you attach to an object are very much a part of that.

The line we’ve been using at conferences about digital ownership is as follows. E-portfolios are supposed to be your digital identity, but how can something be yours if the kinds of things you’re allowed to put in it are dictated by someone else? Sure, you have the explicit ownership – but unless you’re the one who dictates the information, implicit ownership goes to the administrator, and it’s not really yours at all.

{{cut}}As a sort of aside, I’d like to point out what’s been happening to the German language, which I’m not sure I agree with. German spelling has been changed by legislation: over a ten year period, word spellings have been reformed and the grammar of the language simplified. Is this really a good idea? It was spearheaded by educators, but (1) surely the way to tackle people not learning a subject properly isn’t just to make the subject easier, particularly if it’s an integral part of your society, and (2) as the linked news article states, many people aren’t happy and won’t use the new rules. “It’s a black day for the German language,” one linguist is quoted as saying. “Our common orthography that has served us well for centuries is being destroyed.”

Legislating language is surely the wrong way to go about things, particularly if it curbs the ways in which people express themselves. It’s just another top down way to control what the people further down the chain do.

What do you think?

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