digital rhetoric

Unfolding Ontology: the topology of tagging

Clay Shirky’s thoughts on ontology and the social advantages in tagging investigate how web practices like are taking advantage of a new ways of understanding organization. Tagging creates dynamic structures that unfold through time and use. Some of Shirky’s examples really demonstrate the way in which multiplicities and signularities (in the Deluzian sense) operate in new media.

If you look at a particular URL on and examine the tags users have applied to it, you can see the development of a particular structure that tends to link the site to other sites. For example, a site might have two or three very common tags, a half-dozen more regularly applied tages, and then a tail of another twenty tags that have been applied only a handful of times. What you’re seeing there is the function of singularities. Almost every user who marks this site is drawn to at least one of the most popular tags and then may add a less popular one. There are different types of singularities that can combine in any number of ways, resulting in different evolving patterns.

Anyway, I don’t want to get into too much detail about that, when the real question is why move in that direction at all? Well, Shirky’s main point is that the traditional practice of categorization (the library for example) based upon a presumed essence in the objects to be categorized does not work for the web. Hence, what is required is a different way of understanding the unfolding of information, one that does not rely upon the insertion of emerging information into prefabricated categories.

Of course, I’m not just talking about the web. Traditional categorical systems are practical and functional when dealing with a relatively static body of information used primarily by experts who agree in principle with the organizational logic being employed. Again, I could be talking about libraries, but I’m actually talking about universities (which reflect library organization to some degree).

What if, instead of organizing courses in disciplines, we tagged them instead? Or allowed the students to tag them? What patterns might we see? How might we understand the function of curriculum differently?

And more significantly, at least from my view, what if we recognized this unfolding of thought as the material process by which knowledge is composed? How might it alter the way we approach composition (and not just FYC) in the ways we teach "process," argumentation, and the incorporation of "outside sources"?

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2 replies on “Unfolding Ontology: the topology of tagging”

on Ontology, Tagging, Seach, & Commerce

The best and most relevant (to me) web dissertation I’ve ever read was Clay Shirky’s Ontology is Overated. I do not hope to come even close to the clarity and relevance of that manifesto, but I hope to add to the discussion with a narrower…


I agree that the current ideas that most people have about ontologies are far too rigid to be of use. What we really need, instead, is for a more agile, dynamic system whereby folkonomies (for lack of a better term) can be developed.
These would need to be community monitored and pruned, otherwise we end up with the same problem we had with the current version of the internet concerning metatags. People were allowed (and at one time encouraged) to use metatags to describe the content of their pages. For a brief while, search engines relied on this data.
Then it was realized that it was in the best interest of posters to abuse the system. In the best of cases, the metatags were stale or out of scope. In the worst of cases they were outright prevarications (i.e. – using the tag “ford motor parts” on a porno site to generate more traffic).


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